Essence–energies distinction (Eastern Orthodox theology)

A real distinction between the essence (ousia) and the energies (energeia) of God is a central principle of Eastern Orthodox Christian theology. Orthodox theologians generally regard this distinction as more than merely conceptual.[1] This doctrine is most closely identified with Gregory Palamas of Thessaloniki, who formulated it as part of his defense of the Athonite monastic practice of hesychasmos (the spiritual exercise of "stillness" to facilitate ceasless inner prayer and noetic contemplation of God) against the charge of heresy brought by the humanist scholar and theologian Barlaam of Calabria.[2][3] These mystagogical teachings were approved in the Orthodox Church by a series of local Hesychast councils in the 14th century, and Gregory's commemoration during the liturgical season of Great Lent is seen as an extension of the Sunday of Orthodoxy.[4][5]

Historically, Western Christian thought has tended to reject the essence-energies distinction as real in the case of God, characterizing the view as a heretical introduction of an unacceptable division in the Trinity and suggestive of polytheism.[5][6] Further, the associated practice of hesychasm used to attain theoria or theosis was characterized as "magic".[4] More recently, some Roman Catholic thinkers have taken a positive view of Palamite teachings, including how Gregory understood the essence-energies distinction, arguing that it does not represent an insurmountable theological division between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.[7]

Nature of the essence-energies distinction in God

According to Fr. John Romanides, Palamas considers the distinction between God's essence and his energies to be a "real distinction".[8] Romanides distinguishes this "real distinction" from the Thomistic "virtual distinction" and the Scotist "formal distinction".[8] Romanides suspects that Barlaam accepted a "formal distinction" between God's essence and his energies.[8])

Many writers agree that Palamas views the distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies as a "real" distinction.[9][10][11][12][13][14][15][16] A few scholars argue against describing Palamas's essence-energies distinction in God as a "real" distinction. For example, Orthodox philosophical theologian David Bentley Hart expresses doubt "that Palamas ever intended to suggest a real distinction between God's essence and energies".[17]

According to Dominican Catholic theological historian Fr. Aidan Nichols, Palamas's essence-energies distinction is not a mere "formal" distinction. By a "formal" distinction, Nichols means a distinction merely "demanded by the limited operating capacities of human minds".[1]

G. Philips argues that Palamas's essence-energies distinction is not an "ontological" distinction but, rather, analogous to a "formal distinction" in the Scotist sense of the term.[18]

According to Anna N. Williams's study of Palamas, which is more recent than Bentley's and Philips's, in two passages (only) Palamas explicitly says God's energies are "as constitutively and ontologically distinct from the essence as are the three Hypostases", and in one place he makes explicit his view, repeatedly implied elsewhere, that the essence and the energies are not the same; but Williams contends that not even in these passages did Palamas intend to argue for an "ontological or fully real distinction", and that the interpretation of his teaching by certain polemical modern disciples of his is false.[18]

Western theologians, typically following the thought of Thomas Aquinas, admit no real distinction in God other than that between the three divine hypostases or personae, and these only in terms of their extrinsic relations with one another (The Father "generates" the Son; the Holy Spirit "proceeds" or spirates from the Father and the Son, etc.). Neither between the singular essence of divinity and the three Persons of the Trinity, nor between God's essence and His operations, do they admit a real and intrinsic distinction, but only a virtual or a formal distinction.


The concept of synergy used to express the relationship of God with man, which as taught in the East was not only in dogma and proper context the transcendence of the limitations of pagan society and pagan philosophy. In his comparative history of philosophical thought in the two halves of late-antiquity and mediaeval Christendom, David Bradshaw says that the word "synergy" would be the best with which to summarize in a single word the differences between the eastern and western traditions.[19]

Eastern Orthodox perspective

Robert E. Sinkewicz describes Palamas' ultimate perspective as being the "preservation of the reality of God's self-revelation and the divine economy of creation and salvation."[20]

Transcendence of God

Essence of God

The concept of God's essence in Eastern Orthodox theology is called ([ousia - The generally agreed-upon meaning of ousia in Eastern Christianity is "all that subsists by itself and which has not its being in another"]) and is distinct from his energies (energeia in Greek, actus in Latin) or activities as actualized in the world.[21] The ousia of God is God as God is. It is the energies of God that enable us to experience something of the Divine, at first through sensory perception and then later intuitively or noetically. The essence, being, nature and substance (ousia) of God as taught in Eastern Christianity is uncreated and incomprehensible. God's ousia is defined as "that which finds no existence or subsistence in another or any other thing".[22] God's ousia is beyond all states of (nous) consciousness and unconsciousness, being and non-being, beyond something and nothing, beyond existence and non-existence.[23][24] God's ousia has no necessity or subsistence that needs or is dependent on anything other than itself. As uncreated God's ousia is incomprehensible to any created being. God in essence is therefore superior to all forms of ontology (metaphysics).[22] The source of God's ousia or incomprehensibleness is the Father hypostasis.[25][26] God's energies are "unbegotten" or "uncreated," just like the existences of God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), both God's existences and energies can be experienced or comprehended. God's ousia is uncreatedness, beyond existence, beyond no existence  God's hyper-being is not comprehensible to created beings.[27] As St John Damascene states, "all that we say positively of God manifests not his nature but the things about his nature."[28]

Distinction between created and uncreated

See also: Law of identity

For the Eastern Orthodox, the distinction as the tradition and perspective behind this understanding, is that creation is the task of energy. If we deny the real distinction between essence and energy, we cannot fix any very clear borderline between the procession of the divine persons (as existences and or realities of God) and the creation of the world: both the one and the other will be equally acts of the divine nature (strictly uncreated from uncreated). The being and the action(s) of God then would appear identical, leading to the teaching of Pantheism.[29] Eastern Orthodox theologians assert that Western Christianity treats God's ousia as energeia and dunamis (Aristotle's Actus et potentia) as part of the scholastic method in theology. Which allows God's incomprehensibility to become comprehensible, by not making a distinction between God's nature and manifestation of things about God's nature. As Aristotle and Pagan philosophy taught that God was the underlying substance, nature, being, essence (ousia) of all things (as the Monad in substance theory). Making the very thing that makes God, God (uncreated, incomprehensible) the same as God's created world and created beings. God's ousia then becomes detectable and experienced as a substance, essence, being or nature. Rather than God's hyper-being (ousia) as, infinite and never comprehensible to a finite mind or consciousness.

Therefore, Pagan philosophy via Metaphysical dialects sought to reconcile all of existence (ontology), with Mankind's reason or rational faculty culminating into deification called henosis. Where in Pagan henosis all of creation is absorbed into the Monad and then recycled back into created existence. Since in Pantheism there is nothing outside of creation or the cosmos, including God, since God is the cosmos in Pantheism. Or rather meaning no ontology outside of the cosmos (creation). Whereas Orthodox Christianity strictly seeks soteriology as reconciliation (via synergeia) of man (creation, creatures) with God (the uncreated) called theosis. Mankind is not absorbed into the God's ousia or hypostases or energies in theosis. Ousia here is a general thing or generality, in this case ousia is the essence, nature, being, substance of the word God and concept of God. Various Orthodox theologians argue Western Christianity teaches that the essence of God can be experienced (man can have the same consciousness as God); they charge that Western Christianity's treatment is very much in line with the pagan speculative philosophical approach to the concept of God.

Since no distinction is made between God's essence and his works, acts (i.e. the cosmos) that there is no distinction between God and the material or created world, cosmos. Gregory Palamas' distinction is denied in favor of pagan Philosopher Aristotle's Actus et potentia.[30] Uncreated as that which has no first cause and is not caused, in Eastern Orthodoxy therefore being the basis for understanding outside the realm of science. Atheism here being a denial of the uncreated. Pagan philosophical metaphysics being an attempt to rationalize the uncreated.[31]

Immanence of God

Existences of God

Christos Yannaras writes, "[E]ssence, ... whether in the case of God or in the case of man, does not exist apart from the specific person who gives it subsistence. Persons hypostasize essence, they give it an hypostasis, that is, real and specific existence. Essence exists only 'in persons'; persons are the mode of existence of essence."[32] God as infinite and hyper-being (as existent) is called the Father (hypostasis)[33] as origin of all things created and uncreated.[34] God's hands that created the finite or material world are the uncreated existences (hypostases) of God named the Son (God incarnate Jesus Christ) and God immaterial and in Spirit (called the Holy Spirit).[35] Since all of the existences of God as well as all things derive from the Father. What is uncreated as well as created also too, comes from God the Father (hypostasis).[36] The God as uncreated in ousia is infinite and is therefore beyond (not limited to) being or existence.[27] The ousia of God is uncreated and is a quality shared as common between the existences of God. This in Eastern Christianity is called hyper-being, above being (hyperousia).[37][38]

Realities of God

Orthodox doctrine teaches that there are three distinct realities of God. According to Clayton and Peacocke, Palamas does not employ a simple "dyadic contrast between essence and energy within God, nor yet a dyadic contrast between essence and hypostases but... deliberately insists upon a three-pointed contrast between essence, energy and hypostasis. In Palamas' words, "Three realities pertain to God: essence, energy and the triad of divine hypostases."[39]

Economy of God

The divine economy, in the broadest sense, refers not only to God's actions to bring about the world's salvation and redemption, but to all of God's dealings with, and interactions with, the world, including the Creation. In this sense, economy, as used in classical Orthodox doctrinal terminology, constituted the second broad division of all Christian doctrinal teaching. The first division was called theology (literally, "words about God" or "teaching about God") and was concerned with all that pertains to God alone, in himself — the teaching on the Trinity, the divine attributes, and so on, but not with anything pertaining to the creation or the redemption. "...The distinction between οικονομια and θεολογια ... remains common to most of the Greek Fathers and to all of the Byzantine tradition. θεολογια ... means, in the fourth century, everything which can be said of God considered in Himself, outside of His creative and redemptive economy. To reach this 'theology' properly so-called, one therefore must go beyond ... God as Creator of the universe, in order to be able to extricate the notion of the Trinity from the cosmological implications proper to the 'economy.'"[40] Ralph del Colle explains that the divine energies and the hypostases are not identical; however, it is through the energies that the three hypostases are active in the divine economy.[41] Lossky summarizes the working of the divine economy in relationship to the revelation of the hypostases in the energies:

In this dispensation, in which the Godhead is manifested in the energies, the Father appears as the possessor of the attribute which is manifested, the Son as the manifestation of the Father, the Holy Spirit as He who manifests.[42]

The presence of the energies is not to be taken as denial of the philosophical simplicity of God. Therefore, when speaking of God, it is acceptable within Eastern Orthodoxy to speak of his energies as God. These would include kataphatic or positive statements of God like the list of St Paul's energies of God. God being love, faith and hope and knowledge (see 1Corinthians 13:2-13).[43] As is also the case of Gregory of Palamas that God is grace and deifying illumination.[44]

In the life of the believer

The important theological and soteriological distinction remains that people experience God through his energies, not his essence. Traditionally, the energies have been experienced as light, such as the light of Mount Tabor that appeared at the Transfiguration (called photimos). The light that appeared to St Paul on the Road to Damascus. The light that appeared to the apostles in the book of Acts 2:3. Orthodox tradition likewise holds that this light may be seen during prayer (Hesychasm) by particularly devout individuals, such as the saints. In addition, it is considered to be eschatological in that it is also considered to be the "Light of the Age to Come" or the "Kingdom of Heaven" the reign of God, which is the Christ.

Eastern Orthodox criticism of Western theology

Eastern Orthodox theologians have criticized Western theology, and especially its traditional claim that God is actus purus, for its alleged incompatibility with the essence-energies distinction. Christos Yannaras writes, "The West confuses God's essence with his energy, regarding the energy as a property of the divine essence and interpreting the latter as "pure energy" (actus purus)"[45] According to George C. Papademetriou, the essence-energies distinction "is contrary to the Western confusion of the uncreated essence with the uncreated energies and this is by the claim that God is Actus Purus".[46]

Byzantine and Russian philosophy

See also


  1. 1 2 Nichols, Aidan (1995). Light from the East: Authors and Themes in Orthodox Theology, Part 4. Sheed and Ward. p. 50.
  2. "accusing Gregory Palamas of Messalianism"  Antonio Carile, Η Θεσσαλονίκη ως κέντρο Ορθοδόξου θεολογίας -προοπτικές στη σημερινή Ευρώπη Thessaloniki 2000, pp. 131–140, (English translation provided by the Apostoliki Diakonia of the Church of Greece).
  3. Notes on the Palamite Controversy and Related Topics by John S. Romanides, The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Volume VI, Number 2, Winter, 1960–61. Published by the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological School Press, Brookline, Massachusetts.
  4. 1 2 Fortescue, Adrian (1910), Hesychasm, VII, New York: Robert Appleton Company, retrieved 2008-02-03
  5. 1 2 "No doubt the leaders of the party held aloof from these vulgar practices of the more ignorant monks, but on the other hand they scattered broadcast perilous theological theories. Palamas taught that by asceticism one could attain a corporal, i.e. a sense view, or perception, of the Divinity. He also held that in God there was a real distinction between the Divine Essence and Its attributes, and he identified grace as one of the Divine propria making it something uncreated and infinite. These monstrous errors were denounced by the Calabrian Barlaam, by Nicephorus Gregoras, and by Acthyndinus. The conflict began in 1338 and ended only in 1368, with the solemn canonization of Palamas and the official recognition of his heresies. He was declared the 'holy doctor' and 'one of the greatest among the Fathers of the Church', and his writings were proclaimed 'the infallible guide of the Christian Faith'. Thirty years of incessant controversy and discordant councils ended with a resurrection of polytheism" (Simon Vailhé, "Greek Church" in Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909)
  6. John Meyendorff (editor), Gregory Palamas – The Triads, p. xi. Paulist Press, 1983, ISBN 978-0809124473. Retrieved on 12 September 2014.
  7. Michael J. Christensen, Jeffery A. Wittung (editors), Partakers of the Divine Nature (Associated University Presses 2007 ISBN 0-8386-4111-3), p. 243-244
  8. 1 2 3 John S. Romanides, Notes on the Palamite Controversy and Related Topics. Retrieved on 13 September 2014.
  9. Joseph Pohle, Dogmatic Theology, "The Essence of God in Relation to His Attributes", vol. 1, p. 146
  10. Erwin Fabhlbusch, The Encyclopedia of Christianity, vol. 4, p. 13, ISBN 978-0802824165. Eerdmans. Retrieved on 13 September 2014.
  11. John Meyendorff (1979) Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes, p. 59. Fordham University Press, ISBN 978-0823209675. Retrieved on 13 September 2014.
  12. John Farrelly (2005) The Trinity: Rediscovering the Central Christian Mystery, Rowman & Littlefield. p. 108. ISBN 978-0742532267. Retrieved on 13 September 2014.
  13. Cistercian Studies, vol. 7 (1990), Cistercian Publications, p. 258. Retrieved on 13 September 2014.
  14. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 73, 77. St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1976 ISBN 978-0913836316. Retrieved on 13 September 2014.
  15. Gabriel Bunge, The Rublev Trinity, p. 75. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1 January 2007, ISBN 978-0881413106, Retrieved on 13 September 2014.
  16. Karl Rahner, Encyclopedia of Theology: A Concise Sacramentum Mundi, p. 391. A&C Black, 1975, ISBN 978-0860120063. Retrieved on 13 September 2014.
  17. David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 204, Eerdmans, 2004, ISBN 978-0802829214. Retrieved on 13 September 2014.
  18. 1 2 Michael J. Christensen, Jeffery A. Wittung (editors), Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deificiation in the Christian Traditions (Associated University Presses 2007 ISBN 0-8386-4111-3), p. 243–244, Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 2007 ISBN 978-0838641118. Retrieved on 13 September 2014.
  19. Bradshaw, David (2004). Aristotle East and West. Cambridge University Press. pp. 264–265. ISBN 978-0-521-82865-9. [p.264] If one were to summarize the differences between the eastern [p.265] and western traditions in a single word, that word would be 'synergy.'
  20. Saint Gregory Palamas, Robert Edward Sinkewicz (1988). The one hundred and fifty chapters. PIMS. p. 48.
  21. Aristotle East and West by David Bradshaw, p. 91, 95 Cambridge University Press (27 December 2004) ISBN 978-0-521-82865-9
  22. 1 2 The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, by Vladimir Lossky, SVS Press, 1997, p. 50–55, ISBN 0-913836-31-1, (James Clarke & Co Ltd, 1991. ISBN 0-227-67919-9)
  23. Vision of God by Vladimir Lossky, p. 123, "Knowledge is limited to what exists: now, as the cause of all being, God does not exist (St Dionysus the Areopagite The Divine Names, I, 1, col.588) or rather He is superior to all oppositions between being and non-being."
  24. Psalm 18:11, Psalm 97:2
  25. "Oneness of Essence, and it is absolutely essential to distinguish this from another dogma, the dogma of the begetting and the procession, in which, as the Holy Fathers express it, is shown the Cause of the existence of the Son and the Spirit. All of the Eastern Fathers acknowledge that the Father is monos aitios, the sole Cause" of the Son and the Spirit." Orthodox Dogmatic Theology Michael PomazanskyOrthodox dogmatic theology: text - IntraText CT
  26. The Orthodox Faith  Volume I  Doctrine  The Holy Trinity  One God, One Father. OCA. Retrieved on 13 September 2014.
  27. 1 2 Vladimir Lossky Vision of God, p. 123, "Knowledge is limited to what exists: now, as the cause of all being(The Divine Names, I, 1, col.588) or rather He is superior to all oppositions between being and non-being." SVS Press, 1997. (ISBN 0-913836-19-2)
  28. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, by Vladimir Lossky, SVS Press, 1997. ISBN 0-913836-31-1 (James Clarke & Co Ltd, 1991, p. 73, ISBN 0-227-67919-9)
  29. "If we deny the real distinction between essence and energy, we cannot fix any very clear borderline between the procession of the divine persons and the creation of the world: both the one and the other will be equally acts of divine nature. The being and the action of God would then appear to be identical and as having the same character of necessity, as is observed by St Mark of Ephesus (fifteenth century). We must then distinguish in God His nature, which is one; and three hypostases; and the uncreated energy which proceeds from and manifests forth the nature from which it is inseparable. If we participate in God in His energies, according to the measure of our capacity, this does not mean that in His procession ad extra God does not manifest Himself fully. God is in no way diminished in His energies; He is wholly present in each ray of His divinity." The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, by Vladimir Lossky, SVS Press, 1997, pp. 73–75 (ISBN 0-913836-31-1) James Clarke & Co Ltd, 1991. (ISBN 0-227-67919-9)
  30. There was a very faint echo of Hesychasm in the West. Latin theology on the whole was too deeply impregnated with the Aristotelean Scholastic system to tolerate a theory that opposed its very foundation. That all created beings are composed of actus and potentia, that God alone is actus purus, simple as He is infinite – this is the root of all Scholastic natural theology. Nevertheless one or two Latins seem to have had ideas similar to Hesychasm. Gilbertus Porretanus (de la Porrée, d. 1154) is quoted as having said that the Divine essence is not God – implying some kind of real distinction; John of Varennes, a hermit in the Diocese of Reims (c. 1396), said that the Apostles at the Transfiguration had seen the Divine essence as clearly as it is seen in heaven. About the same time John of Brescain made a proposition: Creatam lucem infinitam et immensam esse. But these isolated opinions formed no school. We know of them chiefly through the indignant condemnations they at once provoked. St. Bernard wrote to refute Gilbert de la Porrée; the University of Paris and the legate Odo condemned John of Brescain's proposition. Hesychasm has never had a party among Catholics. In the Orthodox Church the controversy, waged furiously just at the time when the enemies of the empire were finally overturning it and unity among its last defenders was the most crying need, is a significant witness of the decay of a lost cause Hesychasm  Catholic Encylopedia  New Advent
  31. Faith And Science In Orthodox Gnosiology and Methodology by George Metallinos
  32. Yannaras, Christophos. "On the Notions of Essence, Hypostasis, Person, and Energy in Orthodox Thought" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-01-04.
  33. Being with God: Trinity, Apophaticism, and Divine-Human Communion – By Aristotle Papanikolaou
  34. pgs 50–53 The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, by Vladimir Lossky SVS Press, 1997. (ISBN 0-913836-31-1) James Clarke & Co Ltd, 1991. (ISBN 0-227-67919-9)
  35. "Now man is a mixed organization of soul and flesh, who was formed after the likeness of God, and moulded by His hands, that is, by the Son and Holy Spirit, to whom also He said, 'Let Us make man.' Genesis 1:26." Against Heresies (St. Irenaeus) Adversus Haereses (Book IV, Preface)
  36. Oneness of Essence, and it is absolutely essential to distinguish this from another dogma, the dogma of the begetting and the procession, in which, as the Holy Fathers express it, is shown the Cause of the existence of the Son and the Spirit. All of the Eastern Fathers acknowledge that the Father is monos aitios, the sole Cause of the Son and the Spirit. Orthodox Dogmatic Theology Michael Pomazansky
  37. The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology  Dionysius the Areopagite p. 64
  38. Being with God: Trinity, Apophaticism, and Divine-Human Communion – by Aristotle Papanikolaou, University of Notre Dame Press, 24 February 2006 ISBN 0-268-03830-9
  39. Clayton, Philip; Peacocke, Arthur Robert (2004). In whom we live and move and have our being: panentheistic reflections on God's presence in a scientific world. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 163.
  40. V. Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's, 1985), p. 15.
  41. Del Colle, Ralph (1994). Christ and the Spirit: Spirit-christology in trinitarian perspective. Oxford University Press US. p. 16.
  42. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1976, pp. 82–83, ISBN 978-0913836316
  43. Vladimir Lossky (1976) p. 81
  44. Vladimir Lossky (1976) p. 70
  45. Christos Yannaras, Orthodoxy and the West: Hellenic Self-Identity in the Modern Age (Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2006), p. 36.
  46. George C. Papademetriou, Introduction to St. Gregory Palamas (Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2004), p. 61.


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