Medieval Theological Debates: the Beatific Vision and the Hesychast debate [MEDS 6293]

Course Status: 
CEU credits: 
ECTS credits: 
Course Year: 
Academic year: 
Start and end dates: 
27 Dec 2010
Co-hosting Unit(s) [if applicable]: 
Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies (CEMS)
Stream/Track/Specialization/Core Area: 
III—History of Medieval Religion, Philosophy, and Science
Non-degree Specialization: 
EMS—Advanced Certificate in Eastern Mediterranean Studies
Non-degree Specialization: 
ACRS—Advanced Certificate in Religious Studies
György László Geréby

Course description: 

In the fourteenth century there were two major theological conflicts in Christianity leading to important, and opposite dogmatic conclusions: one in the Latin West, called the beatific vision debate (which lasted from November 1331 to January 1336), and about five years later in Byzantium the so-called hesychast debate (1341-51). The controversy on the beatific vision summarized the great ideological currents which had already begun in a hidden way, and developed in incremental steps during the former two centuries resulting in a new metaphysics, epistemology, and ultimately theology of the ordo rerum. These developments ran parallel to the new theories of the emerging academic guild of the “scholastics”.

Similarly, the hesychast debate emerged from the developments within the Greek (Byzantine) realm, becoming first manifest during a debate between two Greek theologians, Barlaam of Calabria and Gregory Palamas, similarly involving major methodological problems.

The debates run independently of each other although they were intimately connected as to their content. While on the surface the primary subjects, and stresses were different (eschatology, and the divine energies, respectively), on a second look they both addressed hitherto unspecified problems in theological epistemology (the knowledge of God), and eschatology. In this sense the similarities of the problems connected the two debates offered a possibility for the two traditions to arrive to solutions which are consistent with their own general presuppositions. This explains that while the themes were not explicitly related, both debates formed the pinnacles of the Latin and the Greek developments respectively. The conluding results are diametrically opposed to each other.

The course will analyse the history and the background of the controversies from a comparative point of view, attempting to identify the different assumptions, and traditions out of which these new dogmatic divergences evolved.

Learning objectives:

The first objective is to become familiar with the historical context of the fourteenth century Latin and Byzantine theological developments, not least in their connection to secular learning. Secondly, the task is to understand the different theological ideas, their motivations, consistency and inner problems, together with their interrelationship with the respective intellectual environments.


Learning outcomes:

Mastering key concepts of fourteenth century theological debates, both Latin and Greek, familiarity with the developments of the history of dogma, basic overview of political and ecclesiastical events.


Additional information:

Latin and Greek are not a requirement, but are of help.



Class participation (20%), class journal (one page after every session) (20%), a presentation (30%), plus one short essay ((2000 words) (30 %).


Course description:


Schedule and readings


1. The 14th century in the West, and in Byzantium: a historical overview.

Main figures, and terms of the debates. Terminology: Greek, Latin, etc. Positions in the debates. The main issues: theology and philosophy intertwined. Philosophy and theology related in eschatology epistemology and philosophical anthropology. Historiography: how to avoid partisanship. Method: a reverse approach.

Reading: Lossky, ch.1.

Suggested readings:

Meyendorff, J., Byzantine theology : historical trends and doctrinal themes, New York : Fordham University Press, 1974. 91- 128.


2. The bull Benedictus deus and the debate on Beatific vision in Avignon, 1333-36.

The sermons of John XXII. The history of the debate. Participants, and their role in contemporary theology from Petrus Paludanus to Giraldus Odonis.


Dykmans, M. Les sermons de Jean XXII sur la vision béatifique. (Rome: 1973)

Lossky, V., The vision of God,  Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1983, c1963. p. 5-7.

Suggested readings:

Trottmann, Christian, La vision béatifique des disputes scholastiques à sa définition par Bénoît XII (Rome: École Francaise de Rome, 1995).


3. The tomoi of the Hesychast councils in Byzantium.

Issues and terms. Monastic prayer. Light of Thabor.


Lossky, V., The vision of God, (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1983 c1963)


4. The background of a difference: the Greek and Latin opposition.

The long way of separation. Not a substantive, but a cumulative difference. The role of the Carolingians. The charges of errors (contra errores Graecorum literature, and the Byzantine lists of Latin errors.) The history of Greek and Latin theological conflicts. The varying list of errors.

Kolbaba, T., ‘Byzantine perceptions of Latin Religious “Errors” : Themes and changes from 850-1350’, in  Laiou Angeliki E., Mottahedeh and Roy Parviz: The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World, Washington DC, . (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. 2001., 117-143

Suggested readings:

Chadwick, H., East and West : the Making of a rift in the Church, Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2003. 270 p.

Kolbaba, T., The Byzantine lists : errors of the Latins, Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 2000


5. Tradition and innovation in the West.

The issue of the tradition. John XXII, and Bernhard of Clairvaux. Who was the innovator? The Bosom of Abraham. Commentaries on the Apocalypse.

Reading: Douie, D., ‘John the XXII and the beatific vision,’ Dominican Studies, 3 (1950) 154-174. (pdf)

Suggested reading:



6. The theology of the Latin academic establishment.

The change in the twelfth century. The later communis opinio. The council of Vienne 1311-1312. The Armenian union. The decision of the Paris regent masters in theology in 1333. The supporters of the pope, and their theology. Growth in intensity, or change of vision?

Suggested reading:

Dondaine, H. F., ‘L'objet et le 'medium' de la vision béatifique chez les théologiens du XIIIe siècle.’ RTAM 19 (1952) 60-130. (pdf)


7. Latin eschatology and theological epistemology

Historiography of the debate. Types of explanations: the person of John XXII. Individualism. Franciscan sprituality.

Readings: TBA


8. The hesychast debate I.

Barlaam and Palamas. The filioque problem, as the trigger of the debate. Protagonists and their background. The Light of Thabor.


Sinkewicz, R. E., ’A new interpretation for the first episode in the controversy between Barlaam the Calabrian and Gregory Palamas’, Journal of Theological Studies NS31 (1980) 489-500. (pdf)

9. The hesychast debate II.

The theology of Palamas. The monastic background: the spiritual technique of hesychia. The Jesus prayer. Knowledge and experience.Divine simplicity and the essence / energies distinction. The problems in philosophy and theology.


Krausmüller, D., ‘The rise of hesychasm’, in M. Angold (ed.), The Cambridge History of Christianity, 5: Eastern Christianity (Cambridge: University Press, 2006), pp. 101–26. (pdf)

Sinkewicz, R. E., “The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God in the Early Writings
of Barlaam the Calabrian,” Mediaeval Studies 44 (1982): 181 – 242 (pdf)

Suggested reading:

John Meyendorff, ed., The Triads / (New York: Paulist Press, 1983)  Questia


10. Theology and philosophy in Palamas

The issues in philosophical anthropology. Soul and person. Christology and the nature of knowledge. Key concepts: light and deification.


Coffey, David, ‘The Palamite doctrine of god: a new perspective,’ St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly, Vol.32, 1988, 329-358. (pdf)

Text: Gregory Palamas, The One Hundred and Fifty Chapters, trans. Robert E. Sinkewicz (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1988), chs 3-7, pp.85-91. (pdf)


11. Conceptions about the eschaton and on final beatitude.

Different conceptions of theology in Byzantium and in the Latin West. Church, tradition, and theology in Palamas. Ecclesiology: the communio sanctorum. The politics of the resurrection.

Suggested readings:

Krokoch, N., Ekklesiologie und Palamismus. (Doktorarbeit, 2004)  63-196.



12. The latent theological presuppositions. Diophysitism and monarchianism.

Further suggestions for differences: instutional and theological. Summary.


Flogaus, R., ‘Palamas and Barlaam Revisited: a reassessment of East and West in the hesychast controversy of 14th century Byzantium’, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 42 (1998): 1–32. (pdf)

Geréby, Gy., ‘Hidden themes in fourteenth-century Byzantine and latin theological debates:

Monarchianism and crypto-dyophysitism,’ (forthcoming - pdf)


Additional bibliography:


Bradshaw, D., Aristotle East and West. Metaphysics and the divisions of Christendom. (Cambridge: CUP, 2004)

Bynum C. W.,  The Resurrection of the body in Western Christianity, 200-1336. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

Chadwick, H., East and West : the Making of a rift in the Church, (Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2003)

Mavrodes, G. ‘The Life Everlasting and the Bodily Criterion of Identity,’ Nous ll (1977) 27-39.

Mueller, E, Das Konzil von Vienne 1311-1312. (Munster, 1934), pp. 577-587

Podskalsky, G., Theologie und Philosophie in Byzanz : der Streit um did theologische Methodik in der spätbyzantinischen Geistesgeschichte (14.-15. Jh.), seine systematische Grundlagen und seine historische Entwicklung, München : Beck, 1977

Romanides, John S., Notes on the Palamite controversy and related topics

Trethowan, I., ‘Irrationality in Theology and the Palamite Distinction,’ Eastern Churches Review (1977) 19-26

Wicki, Th., Die Lehre von der himmlischen Seeligkeit in der mittelalterlichen Scholastik von Petrus Lombardus bis Thomas von Aquin. (Fribourg, 1954)