Brief Thoughts on the Bradshaw/Tomaszewski Discussion on Essence and Energies

I recently watched the discussion between Dr. David Bradshaw and Christopher Tomaszewski on the essence and energies distinction, which was hosted by the channel Intellection Conservatism. Both of these men have been guests on my channel and I’ve appreciated their content. I also enjoyed the discussion and feel both behaved charitably; in fact, they both exemplified the model of behavior the rest of us should have when we approach these topics, and I hope I will see more of these in the future.

My only concern was when Tomaszewski stated “I’m not well versed in the thought of the East…” I must admit, this did not come as a surprise, because it is generally the position of most Thomists I’ve met. In fact, if I had a dollar every time I’ve heard a Thomist say, “Well, I haven’t really read Gregory Palamas yet” or “I haven’t really looked into the essence and energies distinction yet”, I would be rich. On the other hand, I’ve met quite a few Palamites who have a decent knowledge of the Thomist tradition (though they may misunderstand it on some crucial points). The sad reality is that Thomists generally don’t have Eastern Orthodoxy or Eastern thought on their radar, whereas, the East does have the West on their radar (partly because the East tends to define itself in opposition to the West).

This state of affairs makes me wonder how well do Thomists really understand their own tradition. After all, how can they say they have sufficiently thought through their own perspective if they haven’t considered essential challenges that have been made to it? The lack of consideration of opposing positions then tends to be reflected in discussions between Catholics and Easter Orthodox on the topic of the essence and energies distinction. For instance, Tomaszewski was taken back by Dr. Bradshaw’s brief comment that the Palamite tradition doesn’t believe the blessed in heaven will ever see the essence of God. This is a very basic and explicit tenant of the Palamite tradition, yet Tomaszewski says he had suspected this may have been their position but was not sure until Dr. Bradshaw confirmed it.

This was yet another case of a Thomist who was generally unaware of the basics of Palamism, which often only serves to give the ignorant the impression that the Thomist position can’t account for the Easter tradition. In other words, the casual observer sees the Thomist, who is at a disadvantage in these discussions, and then compares it to the Palamite, who generally has a fair knowledge of Thomism, and concludes Palamism must be true since Thomists haven’t been able to account for the Palamite’s criticisms. By no means am I saying Thomism is inherently inferior than Palamism, or unable to respond to it, but I am saying discussions by Thomists who aren’t familiar with Palamism often give the impression that Thomism is philosophically bankrupt, especially when it enters into discussion with a knowledgeable Palamite.

That being said, the Thomist is not the only one who tends to have an incomplete knowledge of other traditions. For instance, Palamites often equate the entire Western Tradition, or the position of the Catholic Church, with Thomism, and completely ignore other Western alternatives, such as Scotism. They also tend to ignore that the Catholic Church allows for Palamism as an alternative position to Scotism and Thomism, especially in its Eastern Catholic Churches. Moreover, Palamites often fail to note in these discussions the Eastern Orthodox Churches have different positions on the correct interpretation of Gregory of Palamas, and therefore, of what constitutes Palamism. Sadly, these things are often overlooked in these discussions, and it gives people the impression that the Thomist vs. Palamite discussions is truly a debate between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, where it is really one between a certain group of Catholics and a certain group of Eastern Orthodox.

Much more can be said about this discussion but, as noted above, I truly appreciate both Tomaszewski and Dr. Bradshaw’s behavior in the discussion. I simply write this to encourage Thomists to look into the Eastern tradition, so that they aren’t caught off guard, and also so that they don’t give others the impression Thomism is unable to account for the Palamite critic. I also hope that it helps reframe these discussions so that it is no longer presented as a Catholic vs. Eastern Orthodox debate.

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