by Fr Aidan Kimel
That there exists in God a real distinction between his essence and his energies, theologians assure us, is an irreformable dogma of the Orthodox Church. If so, it is a curious dogma, originating in a question that most ordinary believers today would find arcane and probably irrelevant to their lives: Is the light experienced by those who practice the hesychastic method created or uncreated? In this short article I raise four questions that urgently need to be addressed by Orthodox theologians and scholars.
1) How is dogma established in the Orthodox Church?
The distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies was asserted in the 14th century by a series of local synods, the two most important being the 1341 and 1351 Synods of Constantinople. Their Tomes were subsequently received as expressing authentic Orthodox doctrine; but precisely what level of authority do they enjoy? The question is not easily answered. Some claim that they possess an infallible authority equivalent to that of the first-millennium Ecumenical Councils and name the hesychastic synods collectively as the 9th Ecumenical Council; but this is private opinion, lacking consensual and conciliar support. The 2016 Holy and Great Council describes them as possessing “universal authority,” along with several other 2nd-millennium synods; yet given the refusal of several Churches to attend the Council, the authority of Crete remains a matter of dispute. But the real issue is broader and more challenging. How is dogma established within Orthodoxy? Orthodox Christians agree that the dogmatic definitions of the seven Great Councils of the first millenium are binding and irreformable, having been universally received into the consciousness of the Church; but these definitions do not comprehend the whole of Orthodox doctrinal teaching. At which point and by what process does a teaching that has not been promulgated by an Ecumenical Council achieve definitive, irreformable status? What criteria must be fulfilled, and do the Orthodox universally agree on these criteria?
The relevance of these questions to the question of the divine essence and energies is obvious. Since the days of Florovsky and Lossky, Orthodox theologians have asserted the Palamite distinction as possessing dogmatic authority in the Church catholic. If this is the case, then we should also find Orthodox bishops and theologians in the 15th through the 19th centuries consistently making this claim. Do we? We need convincing documentation. The Roman Catholic Church has enshrined the following in its canon law: “No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident” (749.3). Makes sense to me.
2) How are dogmatic statements properly interpreted within Orthodoxy?
This question is pressing and has hardly been addressed by modern Orthodox theologians. The significance of a dogmatic definition is not self-evident, as evinced by the history of doctrine within the Church. The Council of Ephesus needed to be clarified by the Council of Chalcedon, which in turn needed to be clarified by the Second Council of Constantinople. Dogmatic definitions are promulgated within the conditions and limitations of history and therefore must be interpreted within the whole of the Orthodox faith.
It is sometimes asserted by theologians that the Orthodox Church has dogmatically defined a real distinction within God between the divine essence and the divine energies, akin to the distinction between the divine hypostases, as opposed to either a formal or notional distinction (see, e.g., Kallistos Ware and David Bradshaw); but this assumption is borne out neither by a close reading of the 1351 Synodal Tome nor by subsequent Orthodox reflection. 14th and 15th century theologians did not merely reiterate the views of St Gregory Palamas nor interpret them uniformly. The precise nature of the distinction continued to be debated right up to the Turkish conquest. As St Philotheos Kokkinos, a strong supporter of Palamas, wrote in the mid-14th century: “According to the theologians and the Fathers, the divine essence and the divine energy are two things in the sense that it is proclaimed that they differ from each other not really, but conceptually, and that these two things are one thing, their unity in its turn being taken and proclaimed as existent not conceptually but really.” In the 15th century St Gennadios Scholarios appears to have arrived at a position eerily similar to the formal distinction of Duns Scotus. “Palamas Transformed” by John Demetracopoulos is essential reading here. Deeper metaphysical, theological, and historical analysis is needed. Orthodox theology did not stop in 1351. Theological reflection and the refinement of dogmatic formulation is an ongoing work in the Church.
3) What is the theological import of the Palamite distinction?
On the assumption that dogmas are best read apophatically and regulatively, the distinction between the divine essence and energies may, I tentatively suggest, be understood as affirming maximal creaturely participation in the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while at the same time denying apotheosis into new hypostases of the Godhead. In Jesus Christ we are incorporated into the Trinity; but we do not become Persons of the Trinity, nor do we achieve comprehension of the divine nature, nor we do not become ontologically self-sufficient, nor do we cease to be human beings. We do not metamorphize into the transcendent and ineffable Deity; the difference between Creator and creature is maintained. This minimalist description of deification may be deemed inadequate by the Neo-Palamite school (or perhaps not), but I believe it is consonant with early patristic teaching. As Rowan William observes, for the early Fathers theosis was fundamentally sacramental, moral, personal, relational, signifying the enjoyment of “the divine relation of Son to Father, sharing the divine life” (The Wound of Knowledge, p. 59).
Does such participation in the Godhead require an ontological distinction between the divine essence and energies? Might there be other ways, perhaps even more helpful ways, to speak of the deification of humanity in Christ? St Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and St Cyril of Alexandria boldly affirmed theosis, without availing themselves of the distinction (see Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification; Alexis Torrance, “Precedents for Palamas’ Essence-Energies Theology”)—likewise Sergius Bulgakov in the first-half of the 20th century. More recently, Met John Zizioulas has proposed a personalist construal of theosis that avoids the conceptuality of essence and energies.
But given that the essence-energies distinction was initially advanced to protect the authenticity of Christian mystical experience, we need to add one further statement to the above interpretation of the 14th century dogma: in Jesus Christ and by the Spirit, God gives God; thus so, we experience God and not just created realities. On the Mount of Transfiguration, St Gregory Palamas declares, the disciples truly saw Christ Jesus in his uncreated Light and Glory: “We believe that at the Transfiguration He manifested not some other sort of light, but only that which was concealed beneath His fleshly exterior. This Light was the Light of the Divine Nature, and as such, it was Uncreated and Divine.” This assertion became a point of contention in medieval Byzantine/Latin debate regarding the Beatific Vision and participation in the divine essence. That this contention continues today suggests that the question may be ill-formed. Thus David Bentley Hart:
In considering the God of Nicene theology, we discover that the knowledge of the Father granted in Christ is not an external apprehension of an unknown cause, not the remote epiphenomenon of something infinitely greater than the medium of its revelation, and not merely a glimpse into the “antechamber of the essence”; rather, it is a mysterious knowledge of the Father himself within the very limitlessness of his unknowability. But, then again, the God who is the infinite source of all cannot be an object of knowledge contained within the whole; and if the Logos is equal to the Father, how can he truly reveal the Father to finite minds? And if—as became clear following the resolution of the Eunomian controversy—the Spirit too is not the economically limited medium of God’s self-disclosure, but is also coequal with the Father and the Son, and is indeed the very Spirit by which God’s life is made complete as knowledge and love, power and life, how can he reveal to us the Father in the Son?
These questions are made all the more acute, obviously, by the quite pronounced apophatic strictures that all post-Nicene theologians—Augustine no less than his Greek counterparts—were anxious to impose upon their language. As Augustine repeatedly affirms, every kind of vision of God in himself is impossible for finite creatures; none can ever know him as he is; nothing the mind can possibly comprehend is God; God is incomprehensible to anyone except himself; we are impotent even to conceive of God; and so when speaking of God we are really able to do so properly only through negation. And yet he also wants to say that, even in failing to comprehend God in himself, we are led by the Spirit truly to see and know and touch God. Similarly, Gregory of Nyssa denies that any creature is capable of any theoria of the divine essence, and yet wants also to say that, in stretching out in desire toward God, the soul somehow sees God and attains to a theoria ton atheoreton, a vision of the invisible. … Maximus, who raises the “Greek” delight in extravagant declarations of apophatic ignorance to its most theatrical pitch, nonetheless makes it clear that his is an apophaticism of intimacy, born not from the poverty of the soul’s knowledge of God, but from the overwhelming and superconceptual intimacy of that knowledge. The mind rises to God, he says, by negating its knowledge of what lies below, in order to receive true knowledge of God as a gift, and to come ultimately—beyond all finite negations—to rest in the inconceivable and ineffable reality of God. When the mind has passed beyond cognition, reflection, cogitation, and imagination, and discovers that God is not an object of human comprehension, it is able to know him directly, through union, and so rushes into that embrace in which God shares himself as a gift with the creature, and in which no separation can be introduced between the mind and its first cause in God. …
Whatever distinction may be drawn in the thought of, say, Gregory or Maximus between, on the one hand, the divine essence and, on the other, the divine energies or processions or “things around God” (assuming these are nearly equivalent terms), it is not a fixed distinction, but a kind of receding horizon, because God, in his operations toward creatures, reveals ever more of himself and yet always infinitely exceeds what he reveals. Whether, however, this is how Palamas understood the distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies is more than a little debatable. What is beyond debate is that, for many contemporary Palamites—I have in mind especially Vladimir Lossky—the distinction is something altogether more (for want of a better term) dialectical, and altogether more inviolable.
Even all of this, however, is rather beside the point, for the simple reason that both traditions, when they talk about the knowability or unknowability of the divine ousia or essentia, are for the most part talking pious nonsense. There is no such ‘thing’ as the divine essence; there is no such discrete object, whether of knowledge or ignorance. It is ultimately immaterial whether we prefer to use the term ousia to indicate the transcendence and incomprehensibility of God in himself or to use the term “incomprehensibility of the essence” instead. God is essentially Father, Son, and Spirit, and … there is no other reality prior to, apart from, or more original than the paternal archē, which perfectly reveals itself in an eternal and coequal Logos and communicates itself by the Spirit who searches the deep things of God and makes Christ known to us. There is no divine essence understood as a discrete object unto itself, then, into the vision of which the souls of the saved will ultimately be admitted, nor even from the knowledge of which human minds are eternally excluded, and any language that suggests otherwise—whether patristic, Thomist, or Palamite—is an empty reification. The question of the knowledge of God, properly conceived—conceived, that is, in the terms provided by Scripture and the best of patristic dogmatic reflection—is the question of how we know the Father in the Son through the Spirit, even as the Father infinitely exceeds our knowledge; it is, that is to say, an intrinsically Trinitarian question, to which none but a truly Trinitarian answer is adequate. (Hidden and Manifest, pp. 150-154)
When the transcendence of the Creator is rightly conceived as a transcendence of our dualistic categories—distance and nearness, material and immaterial, visibility and invisibility, form and substance, one and many, being and nothingness, participable and imparticipable—we find ourselves immersed in an unknowing beyond knowing, an unknowing beyond unknowing. Our language apophatically points beyond itself. Do we really understand what we are talking about, therefore, when we speak of a metaphysical distinction between the divine ousia and energeia? Is the distinction meaningful and clarifying? As Hart reminds us, the reality, the only reality that matters, is the Father who communicates himself to humanity in his Son by the illuminating and sanctifying work of his Holy Spirit. We participate God through God and in God. Yet it remains unclear to me how Hart would answer the hesychastic concern regarding the vision of the uncreated Light. “In your light we see light,” sings the psalmist (Ps 36:9). Palamas believed that the Light of Tabor is the uncreated activity of the Trinity and thus is God, made visible through noetic transformation. Would Hart disagree?
4) Should the Palamite Distinction be preached?
Speaking solely as a priest and pastor, my answer is a firm no. Deification in Christ most certainly should be preached, and frequently, but I see few reasons why the preacher should ever move beyond the primary language of Scripture and liturgy when speaking of theosis. Union with Christ, filial adoption, regeneration in the Spirit, indwelling the Trinity—these images, and many others, are sufficient for our homiletical and catechetical purposes, as classically confirmed by St Nicholas Cabasilas’s The Life in Christ. The specific concerns that animated the hesychastic controversy are alien to our congregations. Perhaps some believers pray to see the Light of Tabor, but most do not expect to receive this gift in this life, not because they are Barlaamites but because they are not monks. The parish is not Mt Athos. We partake of the Holy Mysteries, we say our prayers and make our confessions, we grow in the life of the Spirit. The Lord is pleased.
I am particularly concerned about the depersonalization of theosis the language of energies inevitably seems to generate. Grace becomes something other than the one God personally bestowing himself in the living fullness of his Trinitarian reality, a power akin to electricity or the force of the Jedi. This is not the intent of the doctrine, yet the danger is real. Just visit an Orthodox forum on the internet. Solution: substitute the term “activity” for “energy.” Torstein Tollefsen maintains that “activity” more accurately expresses the meaning of the Greek term energeia, particularly as used in the Eastern theological and spiritual tradition. “Nowadays,” he comments, “it seems that ‘energy’ has become the established translation of the Greek energeia in spiritual literature and whenever the topic is related to Orthodox spirituality and ‘Palamism’. One can live with this … However, now and then one gets the impression that energy is a kind of quasi-material force almost flowing into the human recipient” (Activity and Participation in Late Antique and Early Christian Thought, p. 5). Andrew Louth concurs: “‘activity’ seems to me a much better translation of the Greek energeia” (Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, p. 40). To speak of the activities of God immediately draws our attention back to the one God who is Person subsisting in three Persons. All persons are mysterious, indeed apophatic, and are perceived only through their acts. Whereas energy is easily imagined as an independent entity, an activity is intrinsically correlated to the agent who performs it. We naturally speak of a person’s energy (“She has so much energy, I get tired just watching her perform”), just as we speak of a person’s power (“You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” [Acts 1:8]). A suggestion for Orthodox preachers: leave the “essence” and “energies” to the philosophers.
Contrast the more biblical and patristic statement by Zizioulas: “Theosis is not simply a matter of participating in God’s glory and other natural qualities, common to all three persons of the Trinity; it is also, or rather above all, our recognition and acceptance by the Father as his sons by grace, in and through our incorporation into his only-begotten Son by nature” (Communion and Otherness, p. 31, n. 51). Eucharistic existence is Trinitarian in substance and structure: by and in the Spirit, through and with Jesus Christ, we offer our praise, prayer, sacrifice, and service to the all-holy Father. Life in the Trinity is the heart and content of our transfiguration in Jesus Christ. Theosis is not only the unmerited reward of our ascetical labors; it is the ground and envelopment of such labors. The baptized live in God and thus know God and experience God. Perhaps we might call this the personalist mysticism of the parochial hoi polloi.
The Palamite distinction between the divine essence and energies undoubtedly served the indispensable service of protecting the doctrine of theosis within the framework of 14th century Byzantine theology. But is it an adequate formulation for today?
* * *
This article is a revision and expansion of an article that was published last week on Orthodoxy in Dialogue.