Essence/Energy distinction rebutted

An alternative reading of the so-called Western doctrine of God is the essence/energies distinction made famous by Gregory Palamas.  It posits that we cannot know God in his simple essence, but we can know him by his energies (or operations).  Hints of this doctrine are found in the Cappadocians and Maximos (though I deny they are saying exactly the same thing as Gregory).  The doctrine has an initial appeal.   Admittedly in our prayer lives, we do not pray to “essence itself,” but to the persons of the Trinity.   It also appears that we do know God by his actions towards us, and not by transcending to the essence.  So this means the distinction is correct, right?  If this is the only alternative to the Thomistic doctrine of absolute divine simplicity (e.g., person = relation =essence; person = essence!), then how can we avoid not assenting to it?

Some form of the doctrine might in fact be correct, but even when I was gung-ho for anchoretism, a number of questions kept coming up.

  1. Is it true that the Thomistic model of divine simplicity is the only choice for Western doctrines of God?  I simply deny this to be the case.  I think it is disputed that even Augustine held to a form of this.
  2. While it’s true that we know God by his actions toward us, can the “energies” model really account for all biblical data?   Even Orthodox theologians note this difficulty.   Vladimir Moss, in rebuttal to Fr John Romanides writes, “Do the Scriptures speak of our having an energetic relationship with God or a personal relationship with God?”
  3. It is true that God relates to us by our actions, but as Gunton notes (Act & Being), when Scripture uses these concepts it does so around terms like providence, Incarnation, and covenant.  When the fathers use these terms they usually mean the peri ton theon (things around the godhead) or the divine logoi (think eternal forms).

Technical critiques of the doctrine:

Orthodox philosopher David Bradshaw writes, ““Somehow by energeia Gregory and Basil would appear to understand both that which God is, and that which God performs. … Basil and Gregory in their turn revise Plotinus by rejecting the distinction of hypostasis between Intellect and the One.  For them the relevant distinction is rather that between God as he exists within himself and is known only to himself, and God as he manifests himself to others.  The former is the divine ousia, the latter the divine energies.  It is important to note that both are God, but differently conceived:  God as unknowable and as knowable, as wholly beyond us and as within our reach.”

In other words, God’s energies are ad extra, outside the Godhead.  They relate to creation.   This raises a troubling point, as Olivianus has noted, “if there were no creation would God’s nature be the same? On the Eastern view, no. On said view, in order for God to have the nature he does he must create. Thus creation is a necessity of nature.”  Remember, in some sense the “energies” are part of who God is.  All Christian traditions believe that God’s essence is stable and unchanging.  God would be God regardless of creation.  However, God’s energies only relate to creation (God’s manifesting himself to others).  So here we have a disjunction between God ad intra and God ad extra.  The only way out of his is to posit a necessary creation, which few traditional theologians are willing to do.

Addendum: Vladimir Moss’s extended critique:

Moss is one of the outlaw theologians of the Orthodox Church.  He is a Western convert to a catacomb branch of the Russian Orthodox Church.  (When the Moscow Patriarchate surrendered to the Bolsheviks, a number of Orthodox believers rightly resisted and went underground, forming denominations–I know they hate that word–like ROCOR and ROCA.  Most of these denominations have since rejoined the MP.  Moss’s has not).   Moss’s theological project is odd, but in many ways it is quite helpful.   He does not have rose-colored Tsarist-Holy Serbia glasses.  He honestly points out problems in current Orthodox theology, historiography, and practice.  His comments on topics like substitutionary atonement, theosis, and original sin are very helpful, surprisingly.

Fr John Romanides in some ways resurrected the theological project of Gregory Palamas. In his works one will note a strong antipathy towards anything Western:  substitution, original sin, AUGUSTINE, etc.  While Romanides has a clear manner of writing, it appears that he often overshoots his target.  While he makes many good points, his method precludes a number of valuable insights in Christian theology.  Moss realizes this and responds accordingly.  In its starkest form, the essence-energies distinction, most starkly represented by Romanides, adopts the Dionysian hyper-ousia (God is beyond being) of which we cannot know, but he reveals himself in his energies, which we can know.  The following are Moss’s glosses:

Romanides:  “ The relationship between God and man is not a personal relationship and it is also not a subject-object relationship. So when we speak about a personal relationship between God and man, we are making a mistake. That kind of relationship between God and human beings does not exist…The relations between God and man are not like the relations between fellow human beings. Why? Because we are not on the same level or in the same business with God.”

Moss: But God came down to our level in the Incarnation (this is precisely the same point Gunton makes against Dionysius).  What reason could Romanides have for denying that God is a Person(s) and that our relationship with Him is personal? The present writer can only speculate here, but the answer may lie in Romanides’ obsession with the distinction between the Essence and the Energies of God, according to which God is unknowable in His Essence, but knowable in His Essence. Now this is a valid and very important distinction, but Romanides abuses it as often as he uses it correctly. It would be an abuse, for example, to say that since God can only be known through His Energies, our relationship with Him can only be “energetic”, not personal. For Who is known through His Energies? Is it not the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – that is, the Persons of the Holy Trinity? So our relationship with God is both “energetic” and personal: we know the Persons of God through His Energies. For, as St. Paul says, God has “shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God [His Energies] in the face of Jesus Christ [His Person]” (II Corinthians 4.6).

Romanides:  “No similarity whatsoever exists between the uncreated and the created, or between God and creation. This also means that no analogy, correlation, or comparison can be made between them. This implies that we cannot use created things as a means for knowing the uncreated God or His energy.”

Moss: But this immediately raises the objection: if there is no similarity whatsoever between God and His creation, why, when He created man, did He create Him in His “image and likeness”? And again: is not this likeness between God and man precisely the basis which makes possible the union between God and man, and man’s deification?

Bayou Huguenot:  This touches on the analogia entis, which most Protestants reject in its Romanist form.  I had never realized Moss’s point before. I offer a hearty amen.

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  1. […] mean conveying the material substance known as grace.  For the Anchorite it could be transmitting God’s own energies.  For the Episcopalian it could mean whatever fluffy thought she saw on Oprah that […]

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