Saturday, March 9, 2013

Divine Essence, Divine Energies, a reprint

The Problem

Ask yourself: how is God able to do anything new, such as create the universe? No, I mean really! It isn’t as irrelevant as it sounds. To the contrary, whole spiritualities and cultures actually depend upon the answer to that initially stupid-sounding but most fundamental question. This is because our answer determines how we relate to God; indeed, how it is possible to relate to Him.

It’s a thorny question because, after all, God’s Being (a.k.a. His “Essence”) is eternal. Eternal means timeless. God’s Being/Essence is neither time-bound nor time-conditioned.

Time is the measure of duration. Time measures how long before change occurs. If no change of any kind ever happens, you have nothing to measure, no time. You have eternity instead.

Now God’s Being, or Essence, is what He alone "possesses" (or is) such that if He didn’t, He would not be God. More precisely, He wouldn’t be, period. That means that whatever it is, God must always have had or been it, from all eternity, else He wasn’t God from all eternity. (Goodness! Two tautologies yet, in one short paragraph!)

So if God’s Essence or Being is eternal, meaning changeless, and no novelty may be introduced into it, how does He create anything? For that matter, how does He do anything at all, such as answer our prayers, unless it is something He has always done, changelessly? How does He ever stop doing anything?

There are only three basic answers to this quandary that have ever been taken seriously in this world, each giving rise to its own distinct spirituality and culture.

An Oriental Answer

So how does a God whose being is eternal and therefore (by definition of "eternal") changeless, manage to do anything new? I've already mentioned that more is at stake in this question than simply how an unchanging God does new and different things. Whole religious methodologies are at stake, whole worldviews, whole ways of relating to God and the world. But one particular issue within these wholes is God's freedom. The question is whether God is really free or whether His own Being compels and constrains Him. Human freedom is also at stake here, because obviously a God who is not free can never bestow true freedom upon His children, either. So how can it be that He, Who never changes, created the universe and then, after "six days", rested from that task?

One answer is, in short, that He didn’t. In this view, the universe is not something created at all. Instead, it is simply God Himself taking on ever-changing forms. Put another way, God made the world using, as the “raw material,” Himself. The universe is God’s “body,” His material form. The universe is made from God’s own Being and is co-eternal with Him. God's only "freedom" is to take on whatever forms He will, whenever He will, for as long as He will. Or in some variants of this worldview, God is an impersonal force, so that the issue of freedom does not even arise.

In this worldview, nothing that exists has any being (or essence, or nature) of its own. Instead, everything shares the one, divine nature. The secret of this life is to realize this. Man needs not redemption but awakening. If you will but realize that your sense of being not-God is illusory, and if you can deeply know yourself as divine, then you will have escaped suffering. You will realize that nothing that happens in this illusory world can harm the real you, the divine you. You will have peace, experiencing yourself as bigger than any suffering life can throw at you, knowing it is all illusion. (How divine beings came to be prey to such illusion, we do not ask.) And in your bliss, you will simply “go with the flow.” And as you realize at that deep level that everyone and everything else is also divine, you will find yourself at one with all that is.

To accomplish this shift of your psychological identity, you practice the art of meditation for many years. You seek to empty your mind of absolutely everything, because it is in that emptiness that the divine dimension of being becomes perceptible.

This of course is pantheism, and such is the religious practice it engenders. The way of life it encourages is exemplified (but not exhausted) by all the specific cultures of the Orient.

It is, however, very different from the Judeo-Christian tradition, in whose teachings the world has both a beginning and an end and is therefore not divine.

“These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, “ (Genesis 2:4)

“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away…” (Revelation 21:1)

For Jews and Christians, God shares His Being (Essence) with nothing and no one. "Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One."

For us, God begins and ends the world. He brings things into being from non-being, simply by forming the intention of doing so. (He doesn’t literally speak His intention, of course, because He has no vocal chords or tongue, but when we read, “and God said ‘Let there be light,’” it means He formed, in an intelligible way, the intention that light should henceforth exist.)

The question still remains for the Christian: how is it possible for Him to do that, to form an intention, since God is changeless? How can He say His creative, “Let there be…” without having said it from all eternity; that is, without the world being co-eternal with Him and therefore divine? Or if He did speak it forever (if He had that intention forever), why do things have a beginning and an end? If God is Creator by nature and if He is eternal, doesn’t He, to continue being God, have to have been creating forever and continue creating forever? (But if so, then isn't His very Being dependent upon His own creation? All this just keeps getting more and more complicated! There aren't any good answers, either, outside of Orthodox teaching.)

For that matter, on the same principle, how is it possible for an eternal, unchanging God to have any interaction with His changing world?

A Western Answer

The question before us remains: if we are not allowed to introduce change into our concept of God’s Being, or time either, how can God ever do anything He wasn’t doing from all eternity? How can He “one day” start to create the world? How can He, having once begun creating, stop doing so and rest on the seventh day? In fact, how is it He can stop or start any activity, such as responding to my prayers? How is it He hasn’t already judged me, and either saved or rejected me, from before all time, as the Calvinists believe? How is it even possible to have a genuine, person-to-person relationship with an absolutely unchanging God?

The Scholastics said it wasn’t. In that system of thought, exemplified by Thomas Aquinas, God only indirectly creates the world we know.

For Aquinas, what God does is eternally create, within His own Being (Essence), “exemplars,” or patterns, or ideas of the creation. This, for the Orthodox, is Problem One: that we have, within the very Essence of the Godhead, created things! Remember that God’s Essence is whatever He has that He can’t not have and still be God. If God did have created things within His Being, then His own creation would be part of what is required for God to be God!

It is natural for these “exemplars” or blueprints to radiate outward from God. God doesn’t directly cause them to do this; they just do it naturally. And these emanations, projected into time and space, create the material world. (How time and space got there to receive these emanations I do not know. I also do not understand why these eternal ideas emanating from God didn’t eternally have the effect of creating the world we know, making the universe beginningless.)

In Aquinas’ thought, God, to create, doesn’t have to change. Rather, the change is in us. We change in relation to Him as we come into being from non-being. Aquinas compares this to a hypothetical relationship between an animal, analogous to us, and a column, analogous to God. If the position of the column relative to the animal changes, it is because the animal moved, not the column.

All this makes Problems Two, Three, and Four for the Orthodox.

Problem Two: Is this biblical? Is it anywhere in Holy Tradition?

Problem Three: the exemplars become intermediaries between God and creation. Although Aquinas tries to uphold the doctrine of creation without any “raw materials,” (ex nihilo), yet here he compromises it. The exemplars are created things which in turn create the material world. This, in opposition to the Judeo-Christian doctrine that God creates the world alone, without intermediaries, with no help, especially not with help from created things, by His Word (Christ), not by emanations.

Problem Four: The created Ideas within God have more and greater reality than their emanations outside of God. This devalues the material world, telling us reality is to be found outside it. The world is but a shadow cast by the true reality, or a ray shining forth from the reality. This undoes or at least severely undermines the entire sacramental worldview, in which the world is very real indeed, and is in fact meant to be the sacrament of communion between God and man and is the (real) meeting place between God and Man.

Still, Aquinas preserves us from pantheism while insulating his concept of God from temporality and change, which is no small feat. But that’s Problem Five, because in the process, Aquinas also has to insulate his concept of God from any real relationship with us! Yes, it’s true. He asserts that while our relationship to God is real, although indirect (via the exemplars within His Essence), yet His relationship to us is not real! Actually, God only relates to His eternal ideas of us.
In the thought of Western Christendom in general (not just in Aquinas), for the sake of protecting God’s changelessness without resorting to pantheism, the notion that God cannot relate to us really or directly is unavoidable to anyone who gives serious thought to it. (Fortunately, the average man in the pew doesn’t.) There really is no known way out of it. It is therefore implicit in Western theology.

This is why, generally speaking, grace is assumed to be a created thing. This is why, in the West, knowledge of God is pursued by means of the intellect more than with the core self, truth is when your thought accurately reflects or coincides with what you are thinking about, and revelation is primarily a matter of words. This is why the things of God (together with God Himself) are dealt with as concepts, concepts, concepts and faith involves cognitive thinking and “theology” is so abstract, so theoretical, something you learn by academic study more than from your own communion with God. That is why catechizing is usually about imparting concepts instead of holiness, teaching ideas instead of asceticism and the art of prayer. And ideas, to which God relates instead of to us, are also our mode of relating to the world and to each other. Even that most personal relationship, marriage, is cast as a legal contract, complete with solemn vows. (There are no vows in an Orthodox wedding.) That is why, in the West the goal of man is not theosis, deification, but something called "The Beatific Vision," that is, beholding the very Essence of God.

Now the devastating idea that God has no real relationship to the created order not only spawns the impersonal sort of culture we see collapsing around us, but also and absolutely rules out anything recognizable to the Orthodox as spirituality.

But here’s the sad yet wonderful joke: near the end of the life of this man who had said God does not have real relations with us, God came to Thomas Aquinas in Person. It was for Thomas a direct, intense, and undeniably real encounter. Of course this upset the very foundation upon which he had built his thought and shook him up badly. No wonder then, that afterward, Thomas called all he had written “straw”. It was a "theology" by a man who had never even met God, had never known Him at all. Afterwards, Thomas never attempted to write a single sentence more of theology - just when he had finally begun to be qualified to do it.

The Orthodox Answer

We have seen that if God were pure Essence, it would be impossible for Him to have created anything in the manner our Faith teaches us He did it, namely: directly, personally, freely, alone, by His Word, and giving a definite beginning to things, as we are also taught He shall give a definite end to things. The problem is that He cannot have made a new decision which He had not made before and did not know He was going to make - otherwise we have imported temporality and mutability into our concept of God. For the same reason, neither can God ever have done a new thing which He had not done before. Furthermore, if it belonged to the Divine Essence to create, then creation would be a necessity, and an eternal necessity, too. God would have to create. Otherwise He would not be God. God’s very Being would be dependent upon His own creatures.

We have seen how pantheism accounts for the material order by denying creation ex nihilo and saying instead that this world is simply a conglomeration of changing forms divinity is taking.

We have seen how Thomas Aquinas, and following him all of Western Christendom in varying degrees, has tried to solve the problem in ways the Orthodox find ruinous for spiritual life (and sound theology, too). They introduce created things (exemplars, or eternal ideas) into their concept of the Divine Essence. They say God only created the world indirectly. They say God cannot be really related to the created order. They locate reality outside of the material world, which for us is entirely real. And they resort to ideas completely foreign to revelation, not found in Holy Tradition or in Holy Scripture, such as created exemplars in the divine Essence which do the actual, direct, impersonal creating of the material world.

And these two answers, that of the Orient and that of the Christian West, are the only two, other than the Orthodox teaching, that historically have found any widespread acceptance in the world, or had much widespread influence. No other way has been found or at least much embraced, except in Orthodox Christianity.

The Orthodox doctrine, then, is that God is “bigger than” Pure Essence. Or His Essence (Being) “overflows” into his Powers, or Energies. By these powers we mean such things as His will, His foreknowledge, His omnipresence (being everywhere simultaneously), His creativity, His Justice, His Grace, His sanctifying powers, and so forth. We mean roughly what Westerners mean when they speak of God’s “attributes,” with perhaps some small exceptions and one enormous one: for us, these Powers (or “Energies”) are uncreated and eternal.

Unlike God’s Essence, the Powers are not ingenerate, for the Holy Trinity eternally generates them, but they are uncreated and eternal.

Neither are the Energies to be thought of as “the fringes of the Deity,” while the Essence is the core; rather, while they are distinct from the Essence, yet they are filled with it. They are fully God. They are the workings of the Holy Trinity in the world, and God is as fully God within the world, within time and space, as He is outside of them. The immanent God and the transcendent God are one and the same Holy Trinity.

As one blogger wrote, “an energy is never apersonal. The energies of God are communicated only through the persons of the Trinity…”

The Uncreated Energies do not infringe the divine simplicity, either, any more than the distinctions among the Three Persons do, or the distinction between Essence and Persons. The “simplicity”They are neither "parts" of God nor limitations upon God. In any case, what is called simple is only the Divine Essence.

And because these Powers or Energies are distinct from God’s Essence, there is no theological problem with saying that in them, God does whatever He wants, whenever He wants, starting and stopping at will, His Essence remaining all the while unaffected and unchanged.

We create no quandaries in asserting that God, in or as His Energies, created the world around us just as the biblical witness says He did – directly, personally, and freely. Furthermore, the world He created is not some shabby copy of some Eternal Idea. Instead, He created it exactly as He had always envisioned it, exactly as He had eternally intended to, and pronounced it, “Very good.”

With the Energy/Essence distinction, there is no logical or theological contradiction in affirming what we in fact already know from living it, namely, a direct, personal, real relationship with God, deepening into communion and finally into theosis, deification. For we know that our communion with Him is communion in His Uncreated Energies and that we can never acquire His Essence. (That would be a contradiction in terms, since acquired isn’t applicable to the eternal Essence of God! You either have it from all eternity or never.)

God’s relations with and in the world, in His Uncreated Energies, necessarily have a beginning, because the world itself has. (And the fact that they do have a beginning shows they are not included in God’s Essence.) The workings of God’s Energies in the world can have an end, too. “The prescience of God has no beginning, but after the things that He foreknows come to pass, it has an end.” (St. Basil the Great, P.G. 29, 680) No problem.

The problem of how an unchanging God creates is only one of numerous theological issues solved or rather avoided, in the East, by the distinction between God as Essence and God as Energy. I shall list some of the others a bit further on. But before that, I want to address the frequently-heard but entirely false charge that the Essence-Energies distinction is a 14th Century, Eastern innovation.

No New Doctrine

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 championed the orthodox Christian teaching when it became controversial. 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.

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, 20,5)

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.

Implications and Ramifications

Here is a quick summary of some of the major ramifications of the (lowercase-o) orthodox distinction between God’s Essence and His Uncreated, Divine Energies. Here is some of why it is so necessary, and why it makes such a vast difference.

1.) It means God is able to have genuine relations with His creation. He can relate to the world personally, directly, and really.

2.) This in turn means He is able to create the world as we have been taught He did: by His Word alone, without any intermediary, without any pre-existing materials, without any help, personally, directly, and at a specific beginning point.

3.) That God Himself created the material world, bringing it out of non-being, means the material world is real, not an emanation from or shadow of reality contained within God’s Essence (Scholasticism), and not a container of hidden reality (pantheism, panentheism).

4.) Thus, salvation does not consist in any kind of escape from the world. A Christian is not supposed to be of the world, but he remains in it.

5.) It also means the material world as originally created is good. It is not some highly imperfect copy of something good inside God. Instead, God made it just the way He wanted to, and successfully. Had the world been made imperfect, it would mean that God is imperfect. If God had caused evil, God would be evil.

6.) Unless God could have real relationships with us, as provided for the by Essence-Energies distinction, salvation as the Orthodox know it would be impossible. For us, salvation is God Himself coming to abide in us, and to make us abide in Him. Salvation is God progressively sanctifying and glorifying and finally deifying us, none of which He could do if He were unable to relate to us directly or really. Salvation is not simply being filled with some created thing called “grace,” but is being filled with, and made one with, God Himself.

7.) To be filled with, and made one with, God Himself , would be pantheism but for the Essence-Energy distinction.

8.) This distinction counters hosts of other heresies, including Arianism, Macedonianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Monothelitism, and Gnosticism. Fr. John Romanides (The Ancestral Sin, p. 66) says, “…if God creates, foreknows, gives life, and saves through created means, then the Arians, Macedonians and Nestorians would be justified,” and, “Monophysitism and Monothelitism are heresies against the basic dogma of creation ex nihilo and of human freedom. Therefore, they are a rejection of the salvation of the whole man and of the world…”

9.) The Essence-Energy distinction means God is free; that is, His unchanging Essence does not dictate His workings or prevent Him from doing changing things. He can do whatever He pleases, and if what He does never contradicts His Essence, that, too, is by choice.

Freedom in God, be it noted, is perfect. It isn’t corrupted or compromised or tempted by evil. Freedom, in God, is freedom to be infinitely good, infinitely loving. It does not imply freedom to be wicked, which is no freedom at all, but slavery.

10.) If God were not free, He could not bestow freedom upon men and angels. But for the Essence-Energies distinction, we would not be able to call ourselves free.

11.) Freedom in turn makes love possible. Christian love, by definition, is freely formed, freely chosen, freely given, freely accepted. Any other kind of “love” is a much inferior imposter. Thus, even love itself depends upon freedom, which depends upon the Essence-Energies distinction. Rejection of it by some others is one of the reasons Orthodoxy is the only religion in the world that consistently preaches (or even can consistently preach) a God of authentic, pure, unbounded, perfect, direct, personal, unconditional , self-sacrificial love.

12.) The Essence-Energies distinction forms a basic argument for the Holy Trinity: it is because we see the Three Persons exercising the very same uncreated Powers that we conclude they are one and the same God; i.e., have one and the same Essence.

13.) The Essence-Energies distinction describes the difference between creation on the one hand, and the Son and Holy Spirit on the other. St. Gregory Palamas says that if the divine Energy did not differ from the divine Essence,

Then neither would the making of things, which belongs to the energy, differ from the begetting and giving procession, which belong to the essence. And if the making of things did not differ from begetting and giving procession, then things made would not differ in any way from what is begotten and proceeds. If this is how things were, then the very Son of God and the Holy Spirit would be no different than creatures. (St. Gregory Palamas, Natural Chapters, 96, P.G. 150, 1189)

14.) Here’s a surprise: that God has direct relations with His creation means He governs it, as He created it, in person, directly, with nothing between Him and us. That means we do not believe in “natural law.” If the Sun rises every morning, it is because God faithfully keeps our planet revolving around it, because that is His gracious will. If there is order in the universe, it is because God is orderly. If things work logically, it is because they were created and are maintained by the Logos Himself. (We derive the English “logic” from logos. God’s Logos is His intellect, especially in the sense of articulate, hence conscious, intellect.)

15.) That there is no “natural law” intervening between God and His creation has an interesting implication for the phenomenon of miracles. It means a miracle is not the lifting, contravening or abrogating of any “law of nature”. It is simply God, in a given moment, doing something differently. (He couldn’t do that, were there no distinction between His Essence and His Energies.)

16.) God’s saving and sanctifying Energies, His foreknowledge, and His will are each distinct from His Essence and from each other. He can foreknow without foreordaining. His will can “make room” for genuine human freedom, can allow us to make even choices that are, in a narrower sense, against His will. These distinctions enable us to deny predestination in the heterodox sense, which would otherwise become a logical necessity. (We deny it for other reasons, but these distinctions render our denial logically possible.)

There are yet more items I could have listed but didn’t because I’m not sure I understand them well enough or agree with them. Just these alone, however, are enough, I think, to demonstrate that the acceptance or rejection of the Essence-Energies distinction makes a whole world of difference, makes for completely different religions, even if they both bear Christ’s name. Christos Yannaras, a noted Greek theologian, writes:

The acceptance and rejection of this distinction 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.

The acceptance of this distinction between essence and energies means an understanding of truth as personal relationship, i.e., as an experience of life and of knowledge as participation in the truth and not as an understanding of meanings that result from intellectual abstract¬ion... That is to say, God is known only as a personal revelation (and not as an idea of active essence), only as a triune communion of persons, as an ecstatic self-offering of loving goodness…

On the contrary, the rejection of the distinction between essence and energy means exclusion of catholic-personal experience and priority of the intellect as the way of knowledge, reducing truth to a coincidence of thought with the object of thought.

The Unknowable Divine Essence

God’s Essence is totally, absolutely, uncompromisingly unknowable. This is not due only to any limitation in us, as for instance that our intellects are too small, although that is obviously also true. To know God as He knows Himself, one would have to be God, which means to have been God eternally. But there’s more than that. That the Divine Essence is radically unknowable comes also from that fact that it is unique in the proper sense, that is, absolutely. It has no parallel, no cognate. There is nothing comparable to it, nothing analogous to it. “I am God; and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like Me.” (Isaiah 46:9) There is nothing to which we could even relate Him.

We can’t even know the Divine Essence by extrapolating backwards from the Powers (Energies) because they are not the same. We can no more do that than scientists can extrapolate backward from the “Big Bang” they postulate to whatever existed before it the "singularity" they say exploded.

There is, indeed, much to say about the unspeakable Divine Essence, such as that it is eternal, that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each possess it in full, that it is distinct from the Divine Powers, and so forth. But what cannot be said at all, not a single world, even equivocally, even analogously, even in shadows, is what the Divine Essence actually is. What is it that all three Persons possess in full? What is it that is eternal? What is it that “makes God God”? We have no idea. And any idea we form is automatically an idol. And any doctrine based upon someone’s idea of the Divine Essence is automatically wrong.

Not even in heaven shall we behold the Divine Essence (Catholic doctrine notwithstanding), much less understand it.

But is this supposed to be a privation? If we love God, it is the Person we yearn to see, the Possessor of the Essence. Not the Essence itself and not the Powers either, but Him who IS the Essence and manifests Himself in the Powers. It’s the Person we love and long to see and to know; in fact, it is the One who is brimming with not just one, but two essences, divine and human. For a Christian to hanker after the beholding and comprehending of the Essence itself, besides being blasphemous and presumptuous, is a strange perversion! We cannot behold or comprehend any essence whatsoever, not even our own, human essence.

The only case I can think of in which one might long to behold “the Being of the Deity”, whatever that is, rather than the Person, might be if one believes in an impersonal deity. But still the motive would be a self-serving one: the ultimate gratification of ones intellectual curiosity by learning “the secret of the universe.” That could never happen, for all the reasons already mentioned. But this should be very far from any disappointment for Christians! Because of course we already know “the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, … now has been revealed to His saints. To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:26-27) Christ Himself is the Secret of the Universe, and specifically, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” And Christ in us is the most glorious, most splendid, most profound, most challenging, most thrilling Mystery there could ever be. That’s what it is all, all, all about. And this Mystery, the Mystery, we can indeed know, not conceptually, not academically, but – what is far better, far more intimate! – by communion in Him.


Aron Wall said...

Dear Anastasia,

Thanks for this very clear and provocative explanation of the Orthodox view on energies vs. essenses. However, I have some comments and questions for you, speaking as Christian who is a Protestant. I'm not so much trying to argue against the energies-essence view (which may well be right) but to explore the ecclesiastical implications you see in it.

First of all, I agree with you that, in order to believe correctly about salvation, we must acknowledge two things:
(1) God (the blessed Trinity) is eternal and unchanging;
(2) Nevertheless, God the Father has entered into relationship with us in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.

Now the Orthodox essence-energies distinction is a way to try to make (1) and (2) consistent. And for all I know, it is the right way to do so. Nevertheless, I'm pretty sure that the vast majority of Christians in the West have believed both (1) and (2)--maybe not St. Thomas, but there have been lots of Western theologians and I don't think they all fell into the trap of denying (2). It seems rather uncharitable to characterize the entire tradition of Roman Catholic theology as denying (2) based on analysing just one theologian, even an important one.

I (and most other Western Christians) believe both (1) and (2), even though I don't know how they can both be true at the same time. Just like I believe that the 3 persons of the Trinity are all God, without knowing how it is true.

Here's another way of making the same point. This is a diagram of God creating the world:

God --> world

Since God is eternal and the world is not, the arrow here represents a mystery. Now your theology elaborates on this mystery by making a distinction in God:

Essence --> Energies --> world

Well, this more complicated picture might also be true, for all I know. But note that it just replaces 1 mystery with 2 mysteries: (a) how does God's essence relate to his (uncreated but apparently changable) energies, and (b) how do his energies relate to the world? I'm not sure whether that's progress or not: if we keep replacing the arrows with mediating concepts this threatens to produce an infinite regress.

So I don't think it's fair to characterize the entire West as being a "completely different religion" on the basis that we don't understand the mystery of God quite as well as the East. Even though we both "bear Christ's name", a fact which seems to be a fact of lesser importance to you. Here I thought that the main doctrine of Christianity was that the invisible God revealed himself through his only-begotten Son becoming Man, something which both the West and the East agree on.

Actually, I wanted to ask you about that too. The main doctrine of Christianity is about how the incarnate Son reveals the invisible Father to us. In other words, the doctrine of the Trinity and Incarnation is already our explanation for how God can relate to the world--it seems redundant to have another different (and more impersonal) explanation on top of that. Maybe you could help me out by explaining more how the essence-energies distinction relates to the more important doctrine of the Incarnation.

Finally, I was surprised that you would portray the Western marriage vows as being somehow related to this theology. Doesn't the western marriage rite predate the Great Schism by many centuries? How can it be a symptom of a heresy which (according to you) didn't develop in the West until later? A lot of Orthodox talk as if everything different in the West must therefore be heretical and wrong, almost as though the West and East hadn't been in communion for a millenium.

I hope you understand my comment as being given in a spirit of prayer and friendship. I'm not actually trying to attack the essence-energies theology here, I'm just trying to (a) understand it better and (b) argue that most of the West is not as heretical as you suggest.

Blessings in Christ,
Aron Wall

crossroader said...

Dear Anastasia,
I think you misrepresent the Roman Catholic view of the Beatific Vision. We say that we will see the divine essence but not that we will comprehend it. Aquinas wrote totum set non totaliter, as a whole and yet not wholly. We will see God infinitum sed non infinite, as the infinite God He is, but not in the infinite way of which He alone is capable.

You also oversimplify when you write that "This is why, generally speaking, grace is assumed to be a created thing." Grace can be both created and uncreated. Saint Bonaventure for example wrote in his Breviloquium " Concerning grace as a gift divinely given, the following must be held. Grace is a gift bestowed and infused directly by God. For truly, together with grace and by means of grace, we receive the Holy Spirit, the uncreated Gift, the good and perfect Gift...At the same time, grace is a gift by which the soul is perfected and transformed into the bride of Christ, the daughter of the eternal Father, and the temple of the Holy Spirit: all of which can be brought about only by the ennobling condescension and condescending nobility of the eternal Majesty through the gift of His grace...Finally, grace is a gift that cleanses, enlightens, and perfects the soul; that vivifies, reforms, and strengthens it; that lifts it up, makes it like to God, and unites it with Him, thus rendering it acceptable to Him; a gift of such a kind that it is rightly and properly called "sanctifying grace." And he continues "If, then, the rational soul is to become worthy of eternal beatitude, it must partake of the God-likening flow. Because this inpouring, rendering the soul deiform, comes from God, conforms to God, and leads to God as an end, it restores our spirit as the image of the most blessed Trinity, affecting it not only as part of the order of creation, but also in terms of the righteousness of the will and of the repose of beatitude...Again, to enjoy God means to possess Him. Hence, together with grace which, by its God-conforming nature, leads to the enjoyment of God, there is given to man an uncreated Gift, the Holy Spirit, to possess whom is indeed to possess God Himself.

Saint Thomas Aquinas writes " By the gift of sanctifying grace the rational creature is perfected so that it can freely use not only the created gift itself, but enjoy also the divine person Himself; and so the invisible mission takes place according to the gift of sanctifying grace and yet the Divine Person Himself is given." It is evident from the above that we also believe in deification (that's why during Mass the priest pours a small amount of water into the chalice filled with wine, and says, "By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity").
Thank you,

Unknown said...

If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism,the Trinity, and panentheism, please check out my website at It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

* The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

For more details, please see:

Samuel Stuart Maynes