Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Unchanging yet Creative God, Part 5

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to hear the distinction between God’s Essence and God’s Energies derided as “Palamism,” after St. Gregory Palamas, who, when the Orthodox Christian teaching became controversial, championed it. The implication, sometimes an outright charge, is that the distinction is a 14th-Century, Eastern innovation. I do not know whether this falsehood is the result of ignorance or of something worse, but in either case it is curious, since in addition to the biblical witness, we have the witness of several saints and Fathers who far pre-date St. Gregory Palamas.

The Essence-Energies distinction is (like all Orthodox doctrine) first of all an interpretation of Christian experience. Bishop Kallistos, in The Orthodox Way, writes:

The traveller upon the spiritual Way, the further he advances, becomes increasingly conscious of two contrasting facts – of the otherness yet nearness of the Eternal. In the first place, he realizes more and more that God is mystery. God is ‘the wholly Other’, invisible, inconceivable, radically transcendent, beyond all words, beyond all understanding…

Yet, in the second place, this God of mystery is at the same time uniquely close to us, filling all things, present everywhere around us and within us. And he is present, not merely as an atmosphere or nameless force, but in a personal way. The God who is infinitely beyond our understanding reveals himself to us as person: he calls us each by our name and we answer him.

Further, since the Bible bears witness to Christian experience (a.k.a. revelation in history), the Essence-Energies distinction is also an interpretation of Holy Scripture, which speaks of God as unapproachable, yet nearer to each man than his own heart. Here is a very small sampling of the sorts of verses I mean.

Never will man see My face and live. (Exodus 33:20).

The secret [things belong] unto the LORD our God: but those [things which are] revealed [belong] unto us and to our children for ever, that [we] may do all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 29:29)

Truly You are God, who hide Yourself,
O God of Israel, the Savior! ( Isaiah 45:25)

"Am I only God near at hand," says the LORD,
"And not a God afar off?” (Jeremiah 23:23)

Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom [be] honour and power everlasting. Amen. (I Timothy 6:16)

As His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness. . . . you may be partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:3, 4).

(Here we need to note that the word used for “nature” is not “ousia,” which means essence, but “physis,” which among other things means “the sum of innate properties and powers by which one person differs from others, distinctive native peculiarities, natural characteristics: the natural strength, ferocity, and intractability of beasts." In other words, "physis" is what God is like as Energies.)

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely his eternal power and Deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:19-20).

Note the distinction: his eternal power and his Deity. Everybody can know that these exist.

He rules by His power forever. (Psalm 66:7)

And then we have Jesus in John 17 (and elsewhere) speaking rather at length of abiding in us as the Father abides in Him, and He in the Father.

For much more than you ever wanted to know about the biblical references to God’s Energies, see this site.

The Fathers, too, bear witness to the Essence-Energies distinction from more than a thousand years before St. Gregory Palamas. That is why St. Gregory quotes some of them:

The Great Basil says, “He who acts is not the same as the act’s energy and neither is the recipient of the energy” And the divine Cyril, too, forming a passage about God, theologizes, “Thus, to create is of the energy, but to beget is of the nature, for nature and energy are not identical.” (St. Gregory Palamas, Natural Chapters, 143, P.G. 150, 1220)

Here are some more saints teaching or referring to this doctrine.

St. Athanasios (298-373)
He is in everything by his love, but outside of everything by his own nature (De Decretis II)

‘He is outside all things according to his essence’, writes St Athanasius, ‘but he is in all things through his acts of power.” “We know the essence through the energy’, St Basil affirms. ‘No one has ever seen the essence of God, but we believe in the essence because we experience the energy.’ (Ware, The Orthodox Way)

St. Basil the Great (born c. 330)
Is it not ridiculous to say that the creative power is an essence, and similarly, that providence is an essence, and foreknowledge, simply taking every energy as essence?” (Contra Eunomius, I.8, PG 29, 528B)

“The energies are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His energies, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His energies come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach.” (Epistle 234)

We say that we know our God from his energies (activities), but we do not profess to approach his essence—for his energies descend to us, but his essence remains inaccessible (Epist. 234, ad Amphilochium)

St. Cyril of Alexandria (circa. 378 - 444)
“Essence and energy are not identical.” (Thesaurus 18, PG 75:312c)

St. John Chrysostom (c. 347–407)
Nor does He have anything in common with us but is separated from communion with created things, I mean as to essence, though, not as to relation. (Commentary on John, Homily 2, Chapter 7, PG 59:33-34)

St. Maximos the Confessor (ca. 580-662)
We do not know God in his essence. We know him rather from the grandeur of his creation and from his providential care for all creatures. For by this means, as if using a mirror, we attain insight into his infinite goodness, wisdom, and power.” ( On Love, i, 96)

“The man divinized by grace will be everything that God is, apart from identity of essence.” (Ad Thalassium 22, PG 90:320a)

Gregory of Nyssa, (d. circa 386)
And if we may reckon that the Cause of our existence did not come to the creation of man out of necessity but by benevolent choice, once more we say that we have seen God in this way too, arriving at an understanding of his goodness, not of his being…He who is by nature invisible becomes visible in his operations, being seen in certain cases by the properties he possesses. (Homily on the Beatitudes, VI)

St. Justin Martyr (d. 165)
Though God is able to do all that He wills to do, He does not will to do all that he is able to do. To be is not the same as to will…if God creates in His being, it is by necessity that He creates whatever He creates. But if it is by will that He creates, he creates out of sovereignty. Creating out of sovereignty, then, He creates as much as He wills and whatever He wills and whenever He wills. If God creates in His being, His will serves no purpose and is altogether useless. (Christian Inquiries, III, 2)

St. Irenaeus, (c. 130-202)
As regards His greatness, therefore, it is not possible to know God, for it is impossible that the Father can be measured; but as regards His love (for this it is which leads us to God by His Word), when we obey Him, we do always learn that there is so great a God, and that it is He who by Himself has established, and selected, and adorned, and contains all things; and among the all things, both ourselves and this our world.

But in respect to His greatness, and His wonderful glory, “no man shall see God and live, for the Father is incomprehensible; but in regard to His love, and kindness, and as to His infinite power, even this He grants to those who love Him, that is, to see God, which thing the prophets did also predict. (Adversus Haereses, 4, 20,1&5)

Note that although the priest-martyr St. Irenaeus came from Asia Minor, he was the bishop of Lyons. That’s Lyons, France, or Gaul as it was at the time. Thus, not only is he a very early witness to the Essence-Energies distinction, but he is also a Western witness to it. This is the true doctrine of the entire, ecumenical church, East and West. How it came to be forgotten, or dropped, and finally rejected in the West I can only speculate. But the Essence-Energies distinction is the authentic heritage of every Christian — for excellent and most necessary reasons, some of which I propose to summarize in the next installment of this series.



William Weedon said...

Do you think there might be a connection here between what we Lutherans term: Deus absconditus and Deus revelatus? God as He is hidden vs. God as He reveals Himself?

William Weedon said...

The Scripture passage from which such language comes, ultimately, I think is Deuteronomy 29:29.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Oh, yes. Thank you for that, William! I've edited the post and added it to the list, right near the top.

I can't say whether your Deus absconditus and Deus revelatus are the same, but to me it doesn't sound that way. That's because there's more to it than the hidden yet revealed God. "Hidden" and "revealed" imply but do not require a distinction between "ousia" and "energeia." For most in the West, it's the Essence that is both.