God’s Essence is his Existence: What the heck does this mean?

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9 Responses to God’s Essence is his Existence: What the heck does this mean?

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I found this podcast only partially successful in the explication of the essence/existence distinction, but it at least gets one thinking.


    • Fr Gregory says:

      This was most enjoyable, thank you for posting it! I’m curious, what do think they should have done differently?


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I think they needed to explain more clearly two points: (1) why essence and existence coincide in God but not in creatures and (2) what the “act of being” means.


  2. Owen says:

    Fr Aidan, thanks for this post. Question: Do Eastern Orthodox (in the main) agree with Thomas here, that God’s essence is his existence? Or does the Orthodox essence/energies distinction provide a different model, one at odds with the Thomistic one?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Excellent question. Historically, Thomists have judged the Palamite distinction (as they have understood it) as incompatible with the divine simplicity, and since the revival in the 1st half of the 20th century of the theology of St Gregory Palamas, many Orthodox have understood the Thomistic construal of divinity (as they have understood it) as incompatible with the proper distinction between the divine essence and divine energies and therefore incapable of affirming the deification of human beings by the Spirit. Perhaps the differences are irreconcilable … or perhaps not. The following points need to be addressed:

      1) The Thomistic understanding of divine simplicity cannot be identified with the Roman Catholic understanding. As Fr Kappes has reminded us, a diversity of understandings of divine simplicity existed in the medieval Latin Church, and this diversity continues today, perhaps even more so. Duns Scotus, for example, believed that divine simplicity is compatible with what he called formal, as opposed to real, distinctions within the divine being. Why is that important? Because …

      2) Some (many?) of the followers of St Gregory Palamas, e.g., St Mark of Ephesus and St Gennadius Scholarios, came to believe that the Palamite distinction is best understood along lines that seem to approximate the Scotist formal distinction (see “Palamas Transformed“). So whereas many contemporary Orthodox theologians believe that the Palamite distinction entails a real distinction within the divine being, it may be that differing interpretations of the distinction are possible.

      3) It seems to me that St Thomas’ understanding of God as “transcendent act of existence” (esse) has yet to be brought into the discussion. This is only a hunch on my part (I lack the competence to say hardly anything at all), but Norris Clarke’s reflections on act and being raised the question in my own mind whether Aquinas and Palamas might be trying to say the same thing within differing conceptualities.

      I’ve been wrestling with all of this for over a decade and have not yet reached a firm opinion. As my headline says, “I’m a blogger, dammit, not a theologian.” 🙂


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I note I neglected to address your first question, “Do Eastern Orthodox (in the main) agree that God’s essence is his existence?”

      I think the answer is no, in that the Byzantine tradition followed Sts Dionysius and Maximus in speaking of God as “beyond Being.” God, of course, is the transcendent source of created being; but he radically surpasses all our categories of being. Hence St Gregory Palamas can declare:

      “Every nature is utterly removed and absolutely estranged from the divine nature [physis]. For if God is nature, other things are not nature, but if each of the other things is nature, he is not nature; just as he is not a being, if the other are beings. And if he is a being, the others are not beings.” (Capita 78)

      Given this conceptual structure, it doesn’t quite make sense to identify God as the act of existence. That would seem to confuse God and creatures.

      This also helps us to better understand the essence/energies distinction and why this distinction may be necessary in Byzantine theology, as opposed to, say, the Augustinian or Thomist.

      One also needs to remember that Thomas’ identification of God as the Act of Existence was not followed by all Latin scholastics. Many followed the older Augustinian identification of God simply as Being. (And at this point I am wading way out of my depths.)


      • Owen says:

        I appreciate these responses. Lots of food for thought here. I’ll be starting my first PhD seminar in the fall, on the coherence of theism, and I think this is where I’ll focus my research. It seems I need to wrestle with the difference between formal and real distinctions in God. I am new to many of these concepts, but the formal vs. real discussion seems pretty important for one’s understanding of divine simplicity. I’ll be following the links you provided also.

        I do wonder if there is somehow a bridge between the Eastern tradition of seeing God as radically “beyond being” and Thomas’s analogy of being. Thomas himself interprets Dionysius to be in agreement with analogy of being, in the context of the “divine names.” In other words, if pressed, I wonder if Dionysius would say our language about God is a complete equivocation (*radically* beyond being could be read that way). Surely, univocity is out; God doesn’t exist in the same way as we exist, which, as you said, would confuse God and his creatures. But a version of analogy of being where our concepts of God analogously correspond to the simple perfection of God – revealed diversely in the perfections of created things – may lie under the surface of Dionysian radicality. Maybe.

        When I read Thomas (and I am just beginning), it seems that in places he would affirm the essence/energy distinction in God. Like this: “We can’t know God’s substance in this life for what it is in itself, but we can know it as represented by creaturely perfections, and that is how our words for him express it” (Sum.Theo.1a.13.2). We can’t know the divine substance/essence, but we can perceive the divine activities in creation. Seems very close to me. Of course, he says we can’t know the substance “in this life,” but we can in the next – which is different from the eschatology of the Greek fathers (I think?). But for Thomas, if we can’t know the substance in this life, then it would seem, according to his own teaching, that we can’t know God’s activity in this life either, since God’s substance = pure act. These seem to be so closely correlated as to be a “package deal” – you can’t have one without the other. Maybe this is the logical inconsistency that some sense in Thomas, making his view of divinity seem “incapable of affirming the deification of human beings by the Spirit.” Without true access to the energies/activities, man cannot become God-like.


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