Saturday, June 29, 2013

St. Gregory Palamas - Confessor and Defender of Orthodoxy Against Islam

by Ralph Zosimas Sidway

I. Introduction

St. Gregory Palamas is one of those profound and pivotal saints with whom one becomes better acquainted over time, and who often surprises with his insights, message and significance. While rightly revered and commemorated in Greece and elsewhere in the Orthodox world and by Orthodox monastics generally, in America, the relatively recent publications of his life and sermons, and studies of his significance, has led to a growing appreciation in the English-speaking world over only the last few decades for this “Light of Orthodoxy,” who is honored on the Second Sunday of Great Lent (often called a “Second Triumph of Orthodoxy”).

In this essay, I intend to explore a lesser known episode from St. Gregory’s life, which is no less significant than his dominant legacy, especially for our troubled times. In a manner similar to St. Gregory’s handling of the Hesychast Controversy, this episode from later in his life is rich in theological insights, and reveals much about the saint’s strength of Christian character; I believe these two lessons are providentially intended for us today, as a model of missionary pedagogy towards Muslims, and as an example of being a faithful confessor of Jesus Christ.

II. Captured and Held Hostage by Muslim Turks

The capture by the Muslim Turks of Archbishop Gregory Palamas when he landed at Gallipoli on March 10, 1354 while on a political mission of reconciliation for the Emperor John V Paleologos, set the stage for an unexpected and providential chapter late in the revered archpastor’s life.  

Archbishop Gregory was held as a hostage by the Muslims for an entire year, suffering considerable hardships, sometimes beatings, chains and deprivations, which left him greatly weakened by the time he was ransomed by the Serbs. [1]

In spite of being a prisoner (his status was somewhat more rigorous than house arrest; he was not locked up in a prison), he used the opportunity to encourage the Orthodox Christians he encountered in the various towns he passed through, who had only recently been conquered by the Ottomans. At the same time, he engaged in several discussions with his Muslim captors, which were preserved by a certain Dr. Taronites from Nicaea, or by Gregory’s biographer Philotheos. These accounts present a dynamic image of St. Gregory, who, in a manner sometimes similar to the Apostle Paul, takes spontaneous advantage of opportunities to engage with his captors in order to share the Orthodox Gospel. In one instance, after seeing a Muslim funeral, Gregory asks the Muslims what was said. On learning that they were asking Allah to forgive the sins of the deceased, he praised their initiative and their beseeching God, pivoting from this starting point to speak of Jesus Christ as the only Judge, using that to lead into the teaching of Jesus as the Logos of God, undivided from Him yet eternally begotten. [2]

III. Debates with his Muslim Captors

In his dialogues with his Turkish Muslim captors, St. Gregory reveals he has a more thorough understanding of Islam and how to counter its theological claims than that evinced in St. John Damascene’s Heresies (written as it was some six centuries earlier, during Islam’s still formative years following its first violent expansion beyond the Arabian peninsula). St. Gregory presents the teaching of God as Trinity through scriptural exegesis, even using verses from the Koran to stress the co-essential and indivisible Word and Spirit of God, as in this excerpt:

Only God, Who ever was before the ages is unoriginate, unending, everlasting [Ps. 89:2], unchanging, indivisible, without confusion, and infinite. Everything created is perishable and changeable. God, the only unoriginate One, is neither without Reason/Logos nor is He without Wisdom. The Logos of God is also the Wisdom of God [1 Cor. 1:24], because Wisdom is in the Logos and without the Logos there is no Wisdom [1 Cor. 1:30]. Therefore, to say there was ever a time when God existed without the Logos and without Wisdom, is impious and impossible; for the Logos of God is also unoriginate, and Wisdom is never to be separated from Him [Jn. 1:1]. 
Now the Logos is never to be found without the Spirit, a point which you Turks also confess. [3]
It is said that Christ is the Logos (Word) of God [Rev. 19:13] and the Spirit of God [Rom. 8:9; Gal. 4:6], (since He is co-essential) and never separated from the Holy Spirit. Therefore, God has a Logos and a Spirit that are ever with Him, and are also unoriginate and indivisible. For God was never, nor will He ever be, without spirit or reason (logos); One therefore is Three, and these Three are One [1 Jn. 5:7]. God, therefore, has a Logos and Spirit [Jn. 1:1, 2; 1 Cor. 2:11; Eph. 2:18], but not as we have reason and a spirit. I shall give you an example. As the effulgence of the sun leaves it and shines down upon us, yet the radiance and the ray never separate from the disk (star) itself. That is why we name them (the radiance and the ray) ‘sun,’ and do not name them another sun apart from the one. Thus, it is the same when we name God and the Logos of God and the Holy Spirit. We do not name some other God from the One, Who is unoriginate and eternal together with the unoriginate Logos and Spirit [Eph. 2:18]. [4]

Having begun with the New Testament, he then turns to the Old, seeking to persuade the Muslims, who claim to honor the previous scriptures of the Jews and Christians:

This is how we were taught to believe and confess by Christ Himself, the Logos of God. Not only did Christ teach thus, but Moses also in the Decalogue, which you adopted on your part. When Moses uttered, ‘The Lord our God is one Lord’ [Deut. 6:4], he said three times the One—because he said ‘Lord’ twice and ‘God’ once—in order to reveal the Three in One and the One in Three. From the beginning, Moses desired to reveal that God and the Logos have the Spirit and between Them and with Them is One God. The Creator, Who created everything, said, ‘Let there be light, and there was light’ [Gen. 1:3]. He said, ‘Let the earth bring forth the herb of grass, bearing seed...’ [Gen. 1:11]. Now, without going into detail, as David says, ‘All that God said, came to be’ [Ps. 148:5; 103:32; 135:4-9]. The scriptural verse then, ‘God said, and it came to pass,’ reveals that God has a logos—for a saying cannot be without a word—and by this Logos did all creation come to pass [1 Cor. 8:6]. The Logos of God existed before all creation and is uncreated [Jn. 1:1-3; 17:5, 24; Heb. 1:2]. Since the Logos of God is uncreated, how can He not be God?  This is because only God is uncreated. 
Now let us return to Moses concerning the making of man. He says, ‘And God formed the man of dust of the earth, and breathed upon his face the breath of life, and the man became a living soul’ [Gen. 2:7]. Within the verse, ‘God breathed the breath of life, and the man became a living soul,’ it is revealed that God has a Spirit [Rom. 15:19; 8:9] and that Spirit is creating [Gen. 1:2]. [5] 
The Creator of the soul is solely God. Thus did Job say, ‘The divine Spirit is that which formed me, and the breath of the Almighty that which teaches me’ [Job. 33:4]. [6]

Thus we see St. Gregory argues for the Trinity primarily on the two-fold basis of God’s wisdom and His will to create; it is impossible for God to be without Logos or Spirit, otherwise He would be both dumb and uncreative. [7]

Essentially, the Logos, or Word, of God, and God’s Spirit, are of God Himself as He is in His Essence, otherwise the Logos and Spirit could not do that which They do, namely participate in the creation and ordering of the cosmos, nor in the redemption of mankind. This is reminiscent of St. Irenaeus’ description of the Son of God (the Logos) and the Spirit as the “two hands of God,” Who never work in the cosmos without the Other, but always in concert. 

Gregory’s approach throughout these encounters is consistent, and as we shall see below, his Muslim interlocutors become quite boisterous and agitated when doctrinal conflicts are raised. Significantly, Gregory presents the scriptural teaching very forthrightly, even though it often goes completely against the Koran, which is stridently and even violently opposed to foundational Christian dogmas (not to mention historical fact, such as the Crucifixion), as can be seen from these examples:

The similitude of Isa [Jesus] before God is as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him: “Be”: And he was. (Sura 3:59) 
Say not “Trinity”: desist: It will be better for you: For God is One God: Glory be to Him: (Far Exalted is He) above having a son. . . . (Sura 4:173) 
In blasphemy indeed are those that say that God is Christ the Son of Mary. (Sura 5:19) 
They do blaspheme who say: “God is Christ the son of Mary . . .” They do blaspheme who say: God is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One God. If they desist not from their word (of blasphemy), verily a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them (Sura 5:75,78) 
Christ the son of Mary was no more than an Apostle; many were the apostles that passed away before him. His mother was a woman of truth. They had both to eat their (daily) food. See how God doth make His Signs clear to them; yet see in what ways they are deluded away from the truth! (Sura 5:78) 
The Jews call 'Uzair a son of God, and the Christians call Christ the Son of God. That is a saying from their mouth; (in this) they but imitate what the Unbelievers of old used to say. God's curse be on them: how they are deluded away from the Truth! (Sura 9:30) 
In fact, they never killed him, they never crucified him — they were made to think that they did. All factions who are disputing in this matter are full of doubt concerning this issue. They possess no knowledge; they only conjecture. For certain, they never killed him. (Sura 4:157)

Given St. Gregory’s devotion to and mystical understanding of the Theotokos [8] and her role in our salvation, we must pay special attention to his discussion of the Virgin Mary and the Virgin Birth of Christ. Neither the Koran nor Islamic theology offers any clear understanding of the importance of the Virgin birth of Jesus, even though it is a prominent Islamic teaching:

The Turks then interjected at this point, and asked, "Tell us how Christ is named Allah [Rom 9:5], since He is a man and was born as a man." [9] 
 The saint then said, "God is not only the Ruler of all and the Almighty, but He is righteous [Heb. 1:8]; as the Prophet David says, 'For the Lord is righteous and hath loved righteousness' [Ps. 10:7], and 'there is no unrighteousness in Him' [Ps. 91:13]... 
"On account of that, the only sinless one is the Logos of God, Who became the Son of Man, born of a virgin [Jn. 1:14; Rev. 19:13; Is. 7:14]. He was testified unto by the voice of the Father [Mt. 3:17; 17:5; Lk. 3:22; 2 Pet. 1:17]. He was tried by the devil but not tempted thereby, but rather He vanquished him [Mt. 4:1-11]. With great works, words and marvels did He reveal and confirm the faith and salvific energy. He took upon Himself the suffering of the guilty, even unto death [Phil. 2:7, 8]; and descending into Hades [1 Pet. 3:19; Eph. 4:9], He delivered them that believed.” 
The Thessalonian, Gregory, then desired to speak about the Resurrection and Ascension of the Lord. He brought forward the testimony of the Prophets, by whom he proved that Christ is God, born of the Virgin, and Who out of His love for man endured the Passion and rose, and many other things. The Turks then with loud shouts interrupted him, and said, "How is it that thou dost say that Allah was born after dwelling in a woman's womb?" They also asked many other questions in that category. The saint then said, "God is not bodily super immense, so that He cannot accommodate a small place. As bodiless [Jn. 4:24], He can be everywhere present, simultaneously both here and in heaven above [Eph. 4:6]. As such, even in the smallest place He may dwell completely." [10]

The many dialogues during Gregory’s captivity are theologically quite rich, and reveal him as a fearless confessor and defender of Orthodoxy against a militant monotheism and in the face of real danger. In spite of John Meyendorff’s overly irenic comments about Gregory “amicably disputing with the son of Emir Orkhan” and the “extremely tolerant attitude of the Turks towards Christians,” [11] we must not lose sight of the very real threat to his safety (and that of his fellow Christians), and the at times quite abusive treatment he suffered at the hands of the Turks. St. Gregory’s Life presents the saint’s own more realistic (if still missionary-minded) appraisal of his captors:

This impious people boast of their victory over the Rom (the Byzantines) attributing it to their love of God. This is because they do not understand that this world below dwells in sin, and that evil men possess the greater part of it… That is why, down to the time of Constantine… the idolators have almost always held power over the world. [12]

As to Gregory’s “amicable disputing,” he at times very pointedly challenges his listeners concerning Muhammad:

As for Muhammad, we do not see that the Prophets bear witness of him, nor do we have the witness of him performing any miracles and noteworthy works. [13]
It is true that Muhammad started from the east and came to the west, as the sun travels from east to west. Nevertheless he came with war, knives, pillaging, forced enslavement, murders, and acts that are not from the good God but instigated by the chief manslayer, the devil. [14]

Islam teaches that the Church expunged the scriptural references to Muhammad. When challenged with this claim, St. Gregory responds quite vigorously:

Our Book has never deleted anything. To do so is to contend with grave and fearful curses [Rev. 22:18,19]… Now there are some heretics who agree with you on certain subjects, but never have they brought forward this deletion of the name of Muhammad in the Gospel of Christ. Now if the Prophets had something good to say about Muhammad, they certainly would not have neglected to do so. We do read, however, that many false christs and false prophets will come to deceive many [Mt. 24:24, Mk. 13:22]. Wherefore, He [Christ] said to take heed and not be deceived [Lk. 21:8]. [15]

When pressed as to why he would not accept Muhammad, since Muslims claim to accept and properly venerate Isa (the Islamic name for Jesus), Gregory replied just as strongly:

Another disciple writes, ‘Even if an angel from heaven preach any other gospel to you than that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed’ [Gal. 1:8]. The Evangelist says, ‘Every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God’ [1 Jn. 4:3]. How shall we accept a book (Koran) that says there shall come one (Muhammad) from God, who is not actually the Lord, when the Evangelist declares, that one is not from God, if he does not confess that Jesus, Who has come in the flesh, is the Lord? This is not possible to do—no it is not. [16]

IV. Conclusion - Faithful to Christ Unto Death

As with his purpose in refuting Barlaam concerning the Hesychast Controversy, so we see in these few vignettes from St. Gregory’s period in captivity a total dedication to Jesus Christ and the truth of the Orthodox Gospel. We see him visiting, encouraging and strengthening the beleaguered faithful, predating St. Kosmas of Aitolia by four centuries. We see St. Gregory appealing, cajoling, engaging, striving to win over his listeners. We see him developing a patient exegesis, showing his respect for the Muslims by seeking to convince them from the scriptures, including from their own texts. But decisively, we see him challenging them, at every turn presenting Jesus Christ as Son of God, Lord, Judge and the mystical Logos or Word of God. And we see him in effect calling Muhammad a false prophet, an imposter, a heretic. We see Gregory witnessing boldly to his faith in Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity.

I would contend that, ultimately, St. Gregory proves by his boldness that he is prepared to die for his faith in Jesus Christ by proclaiming the full Gospel. And further, from the context it is clear that he does so in order to save the souls of his listeners. He values them as men created in the image and likeness of God, therefore deserving of the ultimate in respect, which means sharing with them the truth about salvation, Christ, the Holy Trinity, and the negative truth about their false prophet, Muhammad, and their false religion, which can not save them, but will only lead them to hell.

In our modern age, the prevailing culture not only frowns upon such a direct approach, it deems it hate speech, seeking to stigmatize Christianity, driving it out of the public square and into the shadows. Yet as Orthodox Christians, we are called to confess Jesus Christ openly, and hold out the word of Truth to those we encounter. As we witness the muscular and even brutal ascendency of Islam throughout the world, and hear ever more harrowing accounts of persecution of Christians in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Indonesia, and elsewhere in the Islamic world, we are ourselves confronted with the earliest posing of the existential question: if put to the test, would we confess Jesus Christ even if it might mean our death?

Joined to St. Gregory’s fearless confession of the Faith, is his missionary pedagogy. Knowing his Muslim captors to have some familiarity with Christianity, and responding to their questions in the hope of bringing even just one of them to Christ, he balances patient exposition with polemics, respectful reserve with forceful preaching. Indeed, his bold approach resonates with the Islamic mindset, which values strength and respects firmness. St. Gregory kept it real, not theoretical, giving us an example to follow.

To strive to follow in the footsteps of St. Gregory Palamas, and apply from his Life these “real world” lessons in our own time of challenges and general apostasy, would be to reinvigorate the Church, and perhaps to usher in yet another “Triumph of Orthodoxy,” inspired and instructed by this “Teacher and Support of the Church.” [17]

V. Epilogue

The episode has “An Agreeable Ending:” Gregory sees his Muslim captors becoming more and more agitated, so at a signal from his Christian brothers:

The saint then turned his talk to something joyful, and said with a smile, “If we agree according to teaching, we shall come to the same dogma. Whosoever comprehends, let him judge the power of the words uttered here.” 
Then one of them said, “Some day it will happen that we shall agree.” The saint approved this and prayed that the time might come quickly. Then the Archbishop thought that, sooner or later, this will happen; for as it is written: “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth. And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” [Phil. 2:10,11]. This certainly will take place at the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 
The saint’s biographer, Philotheos, then says that though many other events took place, the Archbishop never had any fear to speak about the word of Christ before “them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul” [Mt. 10:28]. [18]


[1] For a full account of this episode in St. Gregory Palamas’ life, drawing from several sources, see The Lives of the Pillars of Orthodoxy (Buena Vista CO, Holy Apostles Convent & Dormition Skete, 1990), 325-356. (St. Gregory lived only four more years following his release, indicating his weakened health.)

[2] Ibid. 346.

[3] From the Koran: “Jesus, son of Mary, was Allah's word which he conveyed to Mary, and a spirit from him” (Sura 4:171).

[4] Lives of the Pillars of Orthodoxy, 333-334, scripture citations in original. 

[5] The Hebrew word ‘Ruah’ is translated as ‘Spirit’ in the Old Testament; its primary meaning is ‘Breath.’ St. Gregory here is applying both meanings in a condensed presentation, and showing the Holy Spirit’s essential role in the creation.

[6] Lives of the Pillars of Orthodoxy, pp 334-335.

[7] Along these lines, St. John of Damascus went so far as to charge the Muslims as “mutilators of God,” for cutting off God’s Logos and Spirit, and denying the Holy Trinity. See his Critique of Islam, from Fount of Knowledge: Heresies, available online at,

[8] The Virgin Mary; Theotokos means "Birthgiver of God" and is a specific theological title referring to the Incarnation of the Word of God.

[9] By this typical question, we hear the Moslems' difficulty in understanding what St. Cyril of Alexandria succinctly stated at the Third Ecumenical Council: "We are not preaching a deified human being, but, on the contrary, we are confessing God become incarnate. He Who was motherless with respect to essence, and fatherless with respect to economy on the earth, subscribed to His Own handmaid as His Mother." The Rudder, trans, by D. Cummings (Chicago, IL: The Orthodox Christian Educational Society, 1957), p. 224. —Footnote in Lives of the Pillars of Orthodoxy, p 336.

[10] Ibid., 336-338

[11] John Meyendorff, St. Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality (Crestwood NY, SVS Press, 1974), 100,101.  Meyendorff's misunderstanding of (1) the very real threat to St. Gregory's life, (2) the methods used by Gregory to try to convert his Muslim captors, and (3) the brutality and murderous zeal inculcated in the Turks by Islamic scriptures, doctrine and culture, is sadly quite common to scholars who in their "nuanced" approach to Islam willfully blind themselves to its satanic nature.

[12] Lives of the Pillars of Orthodoxy, 326.

[13] Ibid., 349.

[14] Ibid., 352.

[15] Ibid., 351-352

[16] Ibid., 352.

[17] From the Troparion Hymn to St. Gregory Palamas

[18] Lives of the Pillars of Orthodoxy, 353.