Friday, February 27, 2009


What's the difference between saying God is an Essence shared among three Persons or God is a communion of Three Persons, each possessing the same Essence, whole and entire?

Why does it really matter which we say? Is there anything more to this than the old chicken and egg quandary? Is there more to it than a linguistic habit? (Yes, yes, and oh, yes!)

And why should we care anyway about an issue apparently so arcane?


If I tell you God is One Essence with a mysterious Threeness about it such that three Persons have it, I have issued you an invitation to think, because the very first issue is, what in the dickens is an essence? We don’t even know what’s the essence of a rock or a tree or a cloud or a human being, let alone a Divine Being. It’s not that the Divine Essence is necessarily an abstraction in itself, but it is in effect. It corresponds to nothing we know in the concrete world; it is, for us, a mental construct only, and a content-free one, at that. The challenge is to figure out what it means, if anything; and truth will be defined by how closely our concepts correspond to the object of our thought (which, however, is immeasurable, intangible). Theology will be a struggle to discern the correct concepts, an exercise in reason.

If I tell you God is Persons, well, we have models of Personhood all around us, in ourselves and in other human beings. If I tell you God is a communion of love among these Persons, we have a model of that, too, in human marriage. If I tell you the love among these Persons results in the creation of the Universe, we have a concrete model of that, too, in childbirth and human families. If I tell you God is a communion of three Persons, I have issued you an invitation to communion, because the very first issue is the realization that I am outside that communion. The challenge will be how to be a part of it. To know God will be defined as how intimately you enter into this blessed Communion; Truth will mean the degree in which your life participates in God’s. Theology will be a struggle to live the Divine Life, an exercise in articulating it.

What Christos Yannaras wrote of another distinction, that between God’s Essence and God’s Uncreated Energies, also applies here; The difference in emphasis

represents two fundamentally different visions of truth. This does not mean simply two different theoretical views or interpretations, but two diametrically opposite ways of life, with concrete spiritual, historical, and cultural consequences.


James the Thickheaded said...

Okay.. for a shot:

1) "Uh... pass?" Details... see # 2. Actually I think it's the old top down vs. bottom up (See Lossky) distinction... West vs. East and all that... plus the 2nd gives something of the nature between the persons whereas the other tends to be more vague. Use of the words "possessing" and "communion" are quite specific whereas "share" to convey both leaves out much in terms of the nature of the inter-relationship. Two angry countries may "share" a border... but friendly neighbors "commune" without a fence. Or something like that.

2) Because we're wound too tight? Because it determines the extent to which we attach meaning to the integrity of the separate persons of the Trinity. See # 1 above. Just a guess.

3) Mmmmm. Stumped me there. I imagine it's so we can then be "right" and say "A Hah!" to people?
And keep on saying "A Hah!" for 1,000 years. And if we can't pump the numbers... we can at least talk about the quality of the ride .. "an she's sweeter this way." Just kidding.

Note that one of the other pluses of the 2nd approach is that with essence placed in the sentence this way, it sounds like we're talking about a gas or perfume. Possessing an essence or fragrance is a sort of intentional paradox on the one hand, and something that we "put on" as well. Pun not intended... but there it is. Hmmm.

I'll go stand quietly by my stake and wait for the fire to start. Hope someone brings the marshmallows... or barring that... a bucket of water.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Heh-heh. :-)

I'm quite willing to make the verbs "share" and "possess" interchangeable in this context, as long as it's understood in either case that each Person of the Holy Trinity has the Divine Essence whole and entire. Those verbs aren't the issue I meant to bring up. Instead, what I'm asking is whether Christian theology ought to begin with the Essence or with the Persons, and why? What difference does it make?

William Weedon said...

Dear Anastasia,

You might want to pick up the excellent volume that SVS released last year on *Orthodox Readings of St. Augustine* - offers a reappraisal of Yannaras and Romanides harsh critique of St. Augustine and Western triadology in general. "...the essence is nothing other than the Trinity itself."