by Robert F. Fortuin
There is an observation by David Hart in the essay ‘The Hidden and the Manifest’ worthy of further consideration. The comment occurs in his critique of Thomist and Neo-Palamite readings of patristic distinctions within God:
There is no such ‘thing’ as the divine essence; there is no such object, whether of knowledge or of ignorance … God is essentially Father, Son, and Spirit, and … there is no other reality prior to, apart from, or more original than the paternal arche. (The Hidden and the Manifest, p. 153)
To be sure ‘essence’ is a notoriously slippery term. It comes to Anglophones from the Latin root ‘esse‘, to be, as a 14th century philosophical and theological approximation to translate the ancient Greek ‘ousia‘. Ousia is theologically problematic because its primary meaning is distinctly materialistic: wealth, possession, substance. During the Nicene christological debates, the usage of ousia shed the primary connotations of materiality—homo-ousios, the Father’s and Son’s identity of ousia, came to signify their identity of being, existence, nature, essence, or, yes, substance. It should be pointed out that these are by no means univocal terms and are approximations at best. Hart’s idea is as clear as it is important—we must not objectify God’s essence as if it were a material substance, an object known or unknown. Plainly speaking, God is not essentially an essence, but a Tri-Unity of Persons. The importance is difficult to overstate for what is at stake is the primacy of personal subsistence (and with it, I surmise, all of orthodox Trinitarian theology): the most fundamental truth of all is the personal subsistence of God. The Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is worshipped in the Trisagion, ‘Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal’—not divinity, power, or deathlessness in the abstract. We emphatically deny that God is faceless power, an unnamed essence of impersonal dunamis which is more original to and the driving force of the divine Persons. While important differences are marked by parsing essence from energy, when such aspects of personal subsistent existence are reified it obscures the fundamental truth of God as Trinity of consubstantial Persons. Instead, objectification prioritizes substance over person and coagulates conceptual distinctions into reified and impersonal realities.
We find related remarks by John Zizioulas who not unlike Hart disapproves of the negative consequences of subordinating person to essence. According to him doing so erroneously absolutizes being as the fundamental category to which entities trace their existence: being—not person—is the constitutive element of an entity’s existence. We are left, according to Zizioulas, with an impersonalized account of ontology and of reality, for being is more original to person. He traces an ‘ontological revolution’ to the Greek patristic identification of hypostasis with person. The significance of the identification is that person is no longer secondary to being, a mere appendage added to substance, but rather person is itself the very ‘hypostasis of the being’. For Zizioulas the ‘ontological principle or cause of being— i.e., that which makes a thing to exist—is not substance or nature, but the person or hypostasis. Therefore being is traced back not to substance but to person.’ (Being as Communion, p. 41). Person, or hypostasis, is primary, and for theological consideration this means God the Father, the paternal arche, is the most fundamental reality, not essence, substance or being.
If God exists, He exists because the Father exists, that is, He who out of love freely begets the Son and brings forth the Spirit. Thus God as person—as the hypostasis of the Father—makes the one divine substance to be that which it is: the one God. (p. 41)
It appears both Hart and Zizioulas are in agreement on the personalist account. Essentializing essence, favoring ousia over hypostasis, comes at the high cost of de-personalizing ontology. I came across a fascinating commentary by St John Chrysostom on I Corinthians 13, a pericope in which Apostle Paul expounds upon the imperfect state of our knowledge, ‘For we know in part and we prophesy in part’. John’s comments in a homily addressed to the Anomoeans:
‘Paul said this because on the one hand he knows that God exists, whereas, on the other, he does not know what God is in his essence. He knows that God is wise but he does not know how great his wisdom is. He knows that God is great but he does not know how or what his greatness is. He also knows that God is everywhere present but he does not know how this is so. He knows that God provides for all things and that he preserves and governs them to perfection. But he does not know the way in which God does all these things. Therefore, he said: ‘Our knowledge is imperfect and our prophesying is imperfect.’ (On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, Homily I.33, p. 65)
John of course is not alone in making use of the unknowability of God’s essence. He follows the Cappadocian fathers in this, and by the late 4th century this was a well-established Nicene strategy against claims by Aetius and Eunomius that the term agennesia (unbegottenness) uniquely comprehends God. By way of positive identification of God the Father (Eunomius is said to have claimed, ‘I know God as God Himself knows Himself’) with agennesia, the Anomoeans established the Son’s absolute ontological dissimilarity. The Son is begotten, unlike the Father who is unbegotten; thus, the Anomoeans denied consubstantiality. For the Nicene fathers agennesia denoted the hypostatic property of one of the Trinity and thereby maintained the incomprehensibility of God’s essence. But I digress—the reason Chrysostom’s passage is interesting to me is it provides detail as to what he believes the incomprehensibility of God’s essence entails. It is quite remarkable how he goes about explaining incomprehensibility for two reasons: John emphasizes the mode of God’s essence over substance, and secondly, he includes God’s operations (energies) without making a contradistinction to essence. As to the first point, the manner in which God exists is repeated over the question of the ‘what’ or substance of God: that God is wise is known, but how so, is unknown; that God is omnipresent we can comprehend, but how this may be so is entirely outside our ability to understand and know; that God sustains and provides for the cosmos is known, however the way in which God is able to provide for its existence at every moment is beyond our comprehension. It is remarkable that in expounding on what God is in essence, John uses substance language (‘what his greatness is’) but only once. Apparently to the question of the unknown essence the ‘what’ is not as pertinent as the ‘how’. This is contrary to constructs which argue for God’s incomprehensibility exclusively in regard to the divine essence, framed expressly in terms of quiddity, the substance, of divine nature. To the second point: the incomprehensibility of the mode of God’s activities, how ‘God does all these things’ as indistinguishable from the unknowability of God’s essence. Curiously John does not make a distinction between essence and operations. John claims that God in his essence is unknown, and in support, quite surprisingly, he explains that the activities (works, operations, or energies) of God—his provision, preservation, and governance—are beyond understanding. This passage then is quite curious. We would have expected Chrysostom to elaborate on the unknowability of the substance, the ‘what’, of God’s essence and not emphasize mode; and furthermore, certainly not to explicate how the incomprehensibility of God’s essence denotes incomprehensibility of God’s governing and provisional energies toward creation. Whatever else, this passage complicates a facile distinction between the unknown essence vs. the known energies of God.
Chrysostom’s notion that incomprehensibility resides in the mode of God’s being and doing raises the question as to what precisely the source or nature of this incomprehensibility may be. What uniquely and exclusively pertains to God setting him apart from existence and activities that we know? St Gregory of Nazianzus may help shed some light on this, although a divide between essence and energy does not appear to yield. In reflecting on divine incomprehensibility, Gregory states the following about God:
Since [His] every quality is incomprehensible and beyond our conception, how can that which surpasses our level of existence be either conceived or taught? How can the infinite be measured, so that the Divinity should suffer the condition of finite things and be measured by degrees and levels of descent? (Oration 18)
It is infinity which is beyond conception—the Cappadocian points to it as the cause of our inability to know and measure God. The key here is ‘every quality’: infinity applies equally to all of divinity: it pertains to all that God is and does, his ‘every quality’. It is the way in which God exists and does. It is because God is infinite, as the Infinite, his boundless being and doing cannot be measured, cannot be fractured by degradation, subjected to fixed point, stipulated in time or place. Gregory is careful to make clear it is God’s ‘every quality’ which is incomprehensible: there is nothing in or by God which is not permeated with the ‘quality’ of the infinite. But herein is precisely our problem: finite minds are unable to grasp what it means to exist in infinite simplicity, to live and operate without measure, to have no limit or boundary whatsoever in power, presence, knowledge, etc. Given our own finitude, ‘our level of existence’, it is beyond comprehension to understand boundless existence. It even affects time as we know it: our past, present and future:
God always was and is and will be—or better, God always is. For ‘was’ and ‘will be’ are divisions of the time we experience, which is a nature that flows away; but God always is and gives himself this name when he identifies himself to Moses on the mountain (Ex 3.14). He contains all of existence in himself without beginning or end, like an endless, boundless ocean of being. He extends beyond all our notions of time and nature. (Oration 38)
Infinity: like an ‘endless, boundless ocean of being’. Who can understand such a quality of life? This is completely incomprehensible, where would we begin? Nowhere to begin, or end, because God simply is, and simply so ‘without beginning or end’. How is it that ‘God always is’ that God does not become? From a sense of awe and worship we confess that God is Existence itself, that God alone properly exists. But again, how so can this be? To use Gregory’s words, God ‘contains all of existence in himself’—we have absolutely no ability to understand, perceive, know or comprehend such a mode of existence. There are no limits to God’s power, to his knowledge, his will, and presence. As we saw in Chrysostom, it is not possible to separate existence from act, being from doing. He is perfect in all ways and lacks nothing in everything. The utter incomprehensibility of God extends beyond simple being to simple doing, to operations, the eternal activities or energy of God.
Incomprehensibility as a quality of all that God is and does is affirmed by another Gregory, St Gregory the Dialogist (aka ‘Gregory the Great’). In Moralia 16 Gregory states that paradoxically God reveals himself as uncircumscribed but who also ‘contains all things in himself, which he at the same time surrounds in filling, and fills in surrounding, and transcends in sustaining, and sustains in transcending.’ The divine infinite existence and activity is so very strange: the God who is without limit somehow is in the act of sustaining, filling and surrounding the limits of space and time. Gregory affirms God is ‘within and without, he is below and above: above in reigning, below in upholding; within in filling, without in surrounding. He is thus so interior as to be exterior; he surrounds as to penetrate, he so presides as to uphold; he so upholds as to preside’. The mystery of unknowing seems to intensify: the infinite opens up in-act within the finite! In all this we see that the unbounded infinity of God is incomprehensible because the infinite quality is all that we are not, and all that we can not—to infinitely exist and to infinitely operate means to exist and act without cause, without a prior, without other, without beginning, without end. Our being in act, in contradistinction, is only so by the prior cause of the other. The finite can never understand the infinite. This aporia is summarized by the consensus of the Nicene fathers: God is utterly incomprehensible because only the infinite can comprehend the infinite. So much for Eunomius claim to ‘know God as God Himself knows Himself’!
That there is an inseparability of essence and energies is quite intuitive to everyday experience—it is unthinkable for instance to separate a human embrace from the human subject and her human nature (she is human after all). St John of Damascus unpacks this during an extended argument for two energies in the incarnate Christ, from Book III of On the Orthodox Faith:
One must know that operation (energia) is one thing, what is operative (energetikon) another, that which is operated (energema) another, and yet another the operator (energon). Operation, then, is the efficient and essential (ousiodes) motion of the nature (physeos). And that which is operative is the nature (physis) from which the operation proceeds. The operated is the effect of the operation. And the operator is the person (hypostasis) who performs the operation. (III.15, translation mine)
There is much to note here but let’s focus on the four-fold distinction between
Energia is the fecund activity proceeding from the energetikon, the potent nature which by its energetic activity produces energema, the offspring it brings forth into being. All this is done by the will of the energon, the hypostatic subsistence of the energetikon. We could summarize John to say in short, without losing too much in translation, that ‘a person’s essence activates essential energy which proceeds and thereby produces effects.’ This would seem to be an odd expression, but John’s purpose in the context of Book III is to demonstrate that, following Chalcedon, the incarnate Christ possesses two energies, each energy according to its nature; therefore, he is keen to make the point it is a person who acts and produces effects according to and proceeding from its nature. A person produces energetic effects according to her nature: a person acts according to her nature. A human nature will produce human activities, a divine nature produces divine activities, and so forth.
Later in the same chapter John states what should be self-evident, but gets to the heart of the matter:
If every energia is defined as a substantial motion of some nature, as those who are educated in these matters have clearly established, where has anyone seen a nature without a motion or without any energia at all, or where has anyone found an energia which is not a motion of a natural power?
What John is making clear is that no one has ever observed ‘stand-alone’ energia, activities existing independently from energetikon, an energizing essence or nature. Neither can one observe a nature which does not produce energies. We can infer from the above passages that neither nature nor activities can independently exist from the subject, the person who acts. Where there are natures, there are activities. And where there are activities, there are persons. I suppose this could be coined the ‘double enhypostatic principle’ of personal subsistence:
- essence and energy cannot be known or unknown apart from personal, hypostatic subsistence; and
- essence cannot be without energy.
This ‘double enhypostatic principle’ is an inference based on the Chalcedonian formula of the Hypostatic Union—in the one hypostasis of the incarnate Logos each nature subsists and retains its natural properties, and each operates (energein) and produces effects according to each respective nature. And this without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. It should be ‘old hat’ were it not for confusion created by persistent tendencies in some quarters to objectify and reify the distinction formulated as the supposed incomprehensible essence vs. the known energies; the purported activities encountered apart from the essence, and so on (recall old and recent arguments about the essence beheld in the beatific vision; the Palamite and Neo-Palamite controversies; the endless debates about the un/created light of Tabor; and so forth). If we insist on speaking in terms of a distinction between God’s essence and energy (and there are times when such is warranted, as John of Damascus demonstrated), we must do so understanding these distinctions to be merely conceptual and not a real distinction within God in himself. If we insist on speaking about the uncreated energies, we must do so with the unequivocal understanding they are essential activities of the Triunity of Divine Persons. This means we must be careful to refrain from reading reified distinctions into patristic literature, and we must be mindful not to obscure the revelation of the incarnate ‘God with Us’ by supposing an objectified divine essence more original than the personal subsistence of God. That is to say that God is not essentially an essence but a Tri-Unity of co-equal Persons—the incomprehensible God revealed by the Son through the Holy Spirit.
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Robert F. Fortuin is Adjunct Professor of Orthodox Theology at St Katherine College in San Diego, California. He holds an MLitt Divinity from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and a BA in Religious Studies from Vanguard University. He is currently hacking away at the theology of Gregory of Nyssa for his Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.