Essence and Energies


I recently taught a little on this subject drawing on the Patristic materials. These are some notes, but the subject deserves a more detailed consideration to which I will return in due course.

We have spoken at some length about the hidden mystery of the divine essence, and yet insisted that God is still truly known as far as we are able to bear such knowledge, in his actions in the world. In the Theological tradition of the Apostolic and Orthodox Church this distinction has been characterised by the idea of the essence and energies of God. Nor should we imagine that this is some late distinction that has no basis in our own Orthodox theological tradition.

The use of the word energeia derives from Aristotle. In his writing, although it could mean simply activity, it often had the sense of meaning actuality rather than potentiality. By this he meant that energeia was when something was being what it was meant to be to the fullest extent and entirely fulfilling the meaning of its being. In a weak analogy, a car is really and fully a car when it is speeding down the road, and not when it is sitting parked on a drive somewhere.

Energy does not really have the meaning which we give it today. Aristotle meant to use it more in the sense of being-at-work. This is the concept of a being fulfilling its own nature or essence in action. He gave examples of the difference in this idea. The word pleasure, for instance, he saw as the human enjoyment of some activity, in rather a weak sense, since it was based on some particular energeia. Taking pleasure in walking along a beach, for instance. But happiness, he saw as an expression, of the energeia of the human being human and not doing anything in particular at all.

Another important word which Aristotle invented was entelechia, and he had in mind the idea of the activity of a being, being completed in being that being according to its nature. In a sense it means being so completely a being-at-work that all that there is, is this being-at-work-ness. It means that a being or thing is completely doing that work which is its being and so is complete in the doing of that work.

An example used is that of building materials, though this might seem far from speaking about God. But a pile of building materials has the potential to be made into a house, this need not be the only possible use for them. But if the energeia of being a building is expressed, then these things that could become a house will indeed really become in actuality that which they are in potentiality. The energeia is not what we would call energy today. It is not the effort put into building a house. Rather it is the expression of the house-ness, of being a house, which is found in the building materials and brought to an end when the building materials become what they were, a house.

But this is like the idea of the energeia of pleasure. The house is built, and that is an end to it. There is a movement and an activity and it comes to an end. But what Aristotle wants to really be thinking about especially as in regards to God, is that activity which does not come to an end because it is an end in itself. The idea that the being of God is in such a way always being-at-work, always expressing the being-ness of God, without a practical end but in pure and perfect and complete energy.

To explain this a little Aristotle uses the example of sight. The object of the act of sight is to see. There is no particular end. It is enough to say that we see for the act of sight, the energeia of sight, to be expressed. At every moment we may say – I have seen – it is continuing state. But if we are building a house then we cannot say – I have built – until it is completed, and being completed it ceases to be.

Aristotle applies these ideas to his notion of God, and of course he writes in a Greek and pre-Christian context. In the first place, he wants to say that God is not like a pile of building materials. There is no possibility in God, because if there is possibility it is because he is subject to change and to be being acted upon. And secondly, he wants to say that because God, or the Prime Mover as he describes him, must be eternally and unchangingly active it can have no unrealized capacities to act; everything it can do it already does, all at once and as a whole.

This already has some connection to thinking about the attributes of God. We have already considered that God is simple being that does not do things, but is things, and those things we hesitantly attribute to him, he is perfectly and entirely all together. Aristotle wants us to understand his vision of God as a being who is all that he is and expresses in activity all that he is all of the time in an unceasing energeia that is completed in entelechia because there is no lack at all in the fullness of God’s energeia. There is nothing more he could or might do. All that he is, his whole being, is already engaged completely in the being-at-work, which is energeia.

But this is not simply a Greek idea picked up long after the Patristic period. Indeed, we find the word energeia used by the Apostle Paul. In Colossians 1:29, he writes…

For this I toil, struggling with all his energy (energeia) that he powerfully works (energoumenen) within me.

And in Philippians 2:12-13, the Apostle Paul says,

…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

What does St Paul mean in these passages? It is certainly that the divine energeia is at work in us, yet it is also necessary for us to labour. There is a sense here of such a union with God, that respects both the divine and the human energeia. The Apostle Paul is struggling, he says, but struggling with the divine energy that he has received, and that God works in him. John Chrysostom says of this passage from the Philippians…

And when he says ―with fear and trembling see how he assuages the pain of it. For what does he say? ―It is God who works in you. ―Do not be afraid he says, ―because I said with fear and trembling. I did not say it to make you give up, thinking virtue impossible of attainment, but so that you may carry on, so that you may not collapse.

And Augustine of Hippo adds…

We should not suppose, because he said, ―For it is God that works in you both the willing and the doing. that he has taken away free will. For if that were so he would not have said above ―Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For when he bids them work, it is agreed that they have free will. But they are to work with fear and trembling so that they will not, by attributing the good working to themselves, be elated by the good works as though they were their own.

And again from John Chrysostom…

If you have the will, then he works the willing. Do not be afraid or weary. He gives us both zeal and performance. For when we will, he will henceforth augment our willing.

The Fathers are clear, in these and other references, that on the one hand, we should not imagine that all of our activity is directed by God as if we had no free will at all. But equally, and especially for the Christian, there should be an understanding that the divine energeia always sustains and augments our own human energeia, so that we are able to work those things which God desires of us. Nor should this be surprising, since the Divine energeia, which is always fulfilling the being of God, works with us so that we might also find fulfilment in the exercise of our own human energeia, and such a desire for the fulfilment of his creation in its own natural purpose is also an expression of the nature and essence of God. But this is equally not describing a union or participation in the unknowable divine essence. It is speaking of an experience of the energeia of God, his being-at-work.

It was the Cappadocian Fathers who next took up the idea of the distinction between the essence and the energies. They were seeking to reflect on the experience of God in the Old Testament, and especially on the encounter of Moses with the glory of God. And they were also seeking to combat the error of Eunomius. Eunomius was essentially an Arian, differing only in some points from the views of Arius. He identified the attributes given to God with the essence of God, such that if there were different attributes then there must be a different essence. So when he heard that one divine attribute was to be Unbegotten, and that it was said of the Son that he was Only-Begotten, he insisted that these words must describe two different essences, and that the Son could not be of the same essence of the Father, otherwise he would also be Unbegotten.

On the contrary, St Athanasius had argued that the three Divine Persons of the Trinity could be found doing the same energeia, and therefore were the same God. He argued that whatever shared the same energeia, the same being-at-work, was of the same essence. McIntyre says of this teaching in Athanasius…

…the unity of the ousia (that is, of the Divine Essence) is the highest premise of Athanasius’ thought, and the argument is from unity of energeia to identity of ousia. The progression is unity of ousia – unity of energeia – identity of ousia.

It was Basil of Caesarea, who responded to the challenge of Eunomius. He developed the point that what a thing is, is different to how it is. And so to say that someone is a son is not to say what he is at all, but how he is, in relation to another. The term Unbegotten, does not therefore tell us what God is, but where he has come from, that is, it tells us that he has no origin at all. As Gregory of Nazianzus says in his 29th Oration…

Father, they say, is a name either of an essence or of an Action, thinking to bind us down on both sides. If we say that it is a name of an essence, they will say that we agree with them that the Son is of another Essence, since there is but one Essence of God, and this, according to them, is preoccupied by the Father. On the other hand, if we say that it is the name of an Action, we shall be supposed to acknowledge plainly that the Son is created and not begotten. For where there is an Agent there must also be an Effect. And they will say they wonder how that which is made can be identical with That which made it. I should myself have been frightened with your distinction, if it had been necessary to accept one or other of the alternatives, and not rather put both aside, and state a third and truer one, namely, that Father is not a name either of an essence or of an action, most clever sirs. But it is the name of the Relation in which the Father stands to the Son, and the Son to the Father. For as with us these names make known a genuine and intimate relation, so, in the case before us too, they denote an identity of nature between Him That is begotten and Him That begets.

The word translated as Action in this English edition is the word energeia, and so Gregory of Nazianzus is stating that the name Father is neither describing the essence of God, nor his energeia. If it described his essence then the Son, who is not Father, could not be of the same essence. And if it was describing his energeia then the Son would be the product or work or creation of the Father. Instead, he develops a third idea, that Father represents the relation in which the Father stands to the Son, so that the identity of essence remains intact.

It is also clear that Gregory does not consider the essence and the energeia to be identical. The essence clearly characterises the energeia. It is the energeia in accord with a particular essence. But the energeia is the energeia of a being who is of an essence and is not the essence itself. These are different aspects, equally divine of course, of the one being who is God. Gregory of Nyssa reflects on the criticism of Eunomius, who says that if the Son is begotten by a unique energeia of the Father then either the energeia is substantial, a real thing, and the Son is therefore not begotten of the Father, or the energeia is not substantial, in which case he is begotten of nothing at all. He takes from this argument the conclusion that those internal acts of the Trinity are not energeia, and that all of the energeia belong equally to each of the Persons of the Trinity. So he says…

The same life is wrought in us by the Holy Spirit, and prepared by the Son, and depends on the will of the Father.

He means of course that the energeia of the Trinity, that working in us which the Apostle Paul describes, is a work of each of the Persons of the Trinity, in a common energeia according to each Person. We may remember something similar in the incarnation, which we repeat often in the Agpeya…

You are the honoured Mother of the Light; from the rising of the sun to its settings praises are offered to you, O Theotokos, the second heaven, as you are the bright and unchanging flower, and the ever virgin mother; for the Father chose you, and the Holy Spirit overshadowed you, and the Son condescended and took flesh from you.

This one energeia of God is represented in the choosing of the Father, the overshadowing of the Spirit and the condescension of the Son. But if the energeia are not identical to the essence, what is the relation between them? Gregory Nazianzen says, in Oration 38…

For in Himself He sums up and contains all Being, having neither beginning in the past nor end in the future; like some great Sea of Being, limitless and unbounded, transcending all conception of time and nature, only adumbrated by the mind, and that very dimly and scantily…not by His Essence, but by those things around him; one image being got from one source and another from another, and combined into some sort of presentation of the truth, which escapes us before we have caught it, and takes to flight before we have conceived it, blazing forth upon our Master-part, even when that is cleansed, as the lightning flash which will not stay its course, does upon our sight…in order as I conceive by that part of it which we can comprehend to draw us to itself (for that which is altogether incomprehensible is outside the bounds of hope, and not within the compass of endeavour), and by that part of It which we cannot comprehend to move our wonder, and as an object of wonder to become more an object of desire, and being desired to purify, and by purifying to make us like God.

These things around him, are his energies, and it is these which teach us in a partial manner about the essence of God which remains hidden. The attributes of God are named from his energeia, because it is these which we encounter of God, and we refer them back to his essence in a partial manner even while the essence of God remains incomprehensible to us. These energeia are not a substitute for God, or represent something other than God. They are really and truly God as he is able to be apprehended by us. It is really and truly God as he comes to meet us and makes himself known to us. But this is why it is not all of God, it is not the essence of God, we find. His being is beyond sight and thought, but the one we meet through the energeia of this same God, is only and always God himself and none other.

In Exodus 33:19-23 we read…

Then He said, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” But He said, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.” And the Lord said, “Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”

This was an important passage for Basil and the two Gregorys. Gregory Nazianzen writes about his own experience when he says, in Oration 28…

What is this that has happened to me, O friends, and initiates, and fellow-lovers of the truth? I was running to lay hold on God, and thus I went up into the Mount, and drew aside the curtain of the Cloud, and entered away from matter and material things, and as far as I could I withdrew within myself. And then when I looked up, I scarce saw the back parts of God; although I was sheltered by the Rock, the Word that was made flesh for us. And when I looked a little closer, I saw, not the First and unmingled Nature, known to Itself— to the Trinity, I mean; not That which abides within the first veil, and is hidden by the Cherubim; but only that Nature, which at last even reaches to us. And that is, as far as I can learn, the Majesty, or as holy David calls it, the Glory which is manifested among the creatures, which It has produced and governs. For these are the Back Parts of God, which He leaves behind Him, as tokens of Himself like the shadows and reflection of the sun in the water, which show the sun to our weak eyes, because we cannot look at the sun himself, for by his unmixed light he is too strong for our power of perception. In this way then shall you discourse of God; even were thou a Moses and a god to Pharaoh; even were thou caught up like Paul to the Third Heaven, and had heard unspeakable words; even were thou raised above them both, and exalted to Angelic or Archangelic place and dignity. For though a thing be all heavenly, or above heaven, and far higher in nature and nearer to God than we, yet it is farther distant from God, and from the complete comprehension of His Nature, than it is lifted above our complex and lowly and earthward sinking composition.

The distinction is never between God and something other than God. It is always between God as he is known to himself, and God as he may be known by us. We may say that God knows himself according to his unseen face, but we know him only from behind, as he passes before us. Still truly God, but known by us in a different manner than God knows himself.

Another important passage for these Fathers was the account of Moses and the Burning Bush. Of this miracle, Gregory of Nyssa writes…

It is upon us who continue in this quiet and peaceful course of life that the truth will shine, illuminating the eyes of our soul with its own rays. This truth, which was then manifested by the ineffable and mysterious illumination which came to Moses, is God. And if the flame by which the soul of the prophet was illuminated was kindled from a thorny bush, even this fact will not be useless for our inquiry. For if truth is God and truth is light—the Gospel testifies by these sublime and divine names to the God who made himself visible to us in the flesh—such guidance of virtue leads us to know that light which has reached down even to human nature. Lest one think that the radiance did not come from a material substance, this light did not shine from some luminary among the stars but came from an earthly bush and surpassed the heavenly luminaries in brilliance.

What does he want to say? It is that the divine light which was manifest to Moses from the Burning Bush is an expression of that reaching down to human nature which is the loving-kindness of God. It is because of his reaching down to human nature, showing himself by his divine being-at-work, that we are able to have any possibility of knowing God at all. But it is always because of his reaching down to us and not because we are able of ourselves to rise to comprehend him.

This manifestation of God is spoken of by the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:20 where he writes…

Because that which is known of God is manifest in them. For God hath manifested it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. His eternal power also and divinity.

The Apostle is speaking about how it is that God’s wrath is moved against unrighteous men. They have no excuse because God has manifested himself to them, and indeed to all mankind. That which we know of God is entirely because God has manifested it to us. What does Paul say? It is that all of the invisible qualities of God, his attributes, are made known by his actions, by his energeia, his own being-at-work. We may say that the invisible essence of God is known by the energeia of God, by that which he does, and in doing manifests himself to us. The invisible essence is not revealed to us, but that which is known, and that which is known does not comprehend all of God nor the incomprehensible essence of God.

But we also see in this passage from the Letter to the Romans, that these invisible things which are made known to us clearly in the created order cannot also be created. Otherwise it would mean that we understand only created things from the created order, and that it is not God we see. But if it is God we see, but not his essence, then it means that his energies are also divine and are not separated from God. We must understand that these invisible things which we see clearly cannot be the essence because they are spoken of in the plural, and the essence is simple and one. But they are certainly God and not created or separated from him.

Basil the Great speaks about this when he says…

Created things manifest wisdom, art and power but not the substance.

The created order, our reflection on the works of God, both in ourselves and in the world around, us teach us about the wisdom of God, but God is not narrowly to be identified with his wisdom. The reveal his art, generosity and beauty in creative activity. But he is not to be narrowly and absolutely identified with his artistry. And they reveal his almighty power, but this also is not to be considered a narrow and absolute description of his essence. He is all of these, but they do not define him and do not comprehend him.

One problem in the use of the English language is that the word essential has come to have the sense of really or truly. If we say of something ‘is it essentially this or that’ we mean that whatever it looks like this is what it really is. So when we say that the energies are not the essence of God, there is the real possibility that what we hear is ‘the energies are not really God’. But this is clearly not what the Fathers are teaching. They are using essence in the strict sense of meaning that which God is, and not that which is God. Both these ways of speaking speak really and truly about God. But that which God is remains hidden from us. That which is God is made known to us. The one speaks of his incomprehensible essence, the other of his condescension in personally manifesting himself to us.

In the same way, Gregory of Nazianzus, speaking of the creation, says…

When we consider the beauty and grandeur of the wonders in creation and from such as these derive other concepts concerning the divinity, we interpret each of the concepts which arise within us with its own proper name. ‘For from the grandeur and beauty of creatures the Creator is contemplated by analogy.’ … the word θεός we have understood to have taken its force from the activity of providential overseeing. And so, although we have been taught concerning a partial energy of the divine nature, we have not attained comprehension of the substance itself through this word.

This is the same teaching which Basil has given. When we consider the creation we are able to reflect on what it manifests to us of the creator, but this reflection is by way of analogy, it is never by way of a direct comprehension of the essence of God. Gregory uses the word theos as an example. In its etymology he points to it having some sense of beneficent ordering of the universe, but the word God or theos, even with such an etymology, which says something true about God, cannot represent the essence of God. The word God stands for this divine being we encounter, but it does not describe him.

Why is this distinction so important? It is because the basis of Orthodox theology as a spiritual way is that mankind is called to enter into a union with God by grace, a true union which is the participation in the divine life in some manner, as the New Testament teaches, both in the Apostle Paul speaking of the divine energy at work in us, and the Apostle Peter speaking of participation in the divine nature.

Now if the divine essence is incomprehensible, and beyond participation, then it is by the divine energy that we are made able to participate in the divine life. But if these energies are not truly God in his being-at-work, then we do not participate in union with God at all but with some created grace or force. It has been said, for instance, that because we cannot participate in the divine essence, which is entirely in accord with the teachings of the Fathers, then it cannot be said that we participate in the indwelling Holy Spirit. Indeed, it has even been suggested that we do not receive the indwelling Holy Spirit at all both because his essence is incomprehensible and unbearable, and because he is present in all places.

But this is to misunderstand this patristic distinction between God as he is in himself, and God as he enters into an encounter which his creation. John Chrysostom says…

By Spirit he means here the energy. For we all receive the energy of the Spirit in measure, but Christ possesses the entire energy without measure, in its wholeness. But if his energy is without measure, much more so is the substance.

He is speaking here of the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, when the Holy Spirit descended upon him as man, and was received by him in its fullness, even as the Word of God he already shared the same substance of divinity. But for us, in our experience, we receive the energy of the Holy Spirit, to the extent that we are able to do so. Just as a man born blind receives the warmth of the sun but is unable to participate in its light because of a lack of the means to do so. In such a way the Fathers speak of how it is that the Spirit is present and active in the whole world, but those who have not been renewed and purified are unable to participate in his divine energy, his being-at-work, to the extent which those who have and are seeking purity and obedience and life in God are able to do so. This divine energy is always personal, since it is the activity of a personal God, and therefore the greater the measure of participating in the divine energy of the Holy Spirit, which is the divine energy of the whole Godhead, the greater the measure of personal union with God.

Cyril of Alexandria also speaks about the distinction between essence and energies when he says…

Begetting belongs to the divine nature but creating to his divine energy… Essence and energy are not identical.

The one is interior to the incomprehensible life of the Holy Trinity, the other is a manifestation of that divine life. Therefore, since they are not identical, it is proper for us to introduce the distinction, but this distinction does not deprive the energies of God from their proper divine character. If the nature of God is interior to the Holy Trinity then it must be by the divine energies, the being-at-work, that we encounter and participate in the divine life.

Why is this important? It is especially so from the point of view of our own participation in the divine life by God’s grace. If we may only participate in the divine essence, then we must become the entire divine essence and will become all that God is, and will be God, and the Holy Trinity will be a Multiplicity. But if we participate in the divine energies then we will experience theosis but will not become God. We will be, as God wills, like the moon which shines truly with light, but not with its own light rather with the light of the Sun.

Gregory Nazianzen says…

He is Christ on account of his divinity: for this is the anointing of the humanity which the divinity sanctifies not by energy, as with the other christs, but by the presence, whole and entire, of the one who bestows the anointing.

Christ is God and man according to essence and hypostasis. It is God the Word himself who has united his divine person to humanity. In this he is the Christ, the Anointed, because he himself Anoints his own humanity with his own divinity. But for us, as we seek to become christs, to be Christians, it is the divine energy which sanctifies us and not the divine essence. And this is also what Basil says when he writes…

The Holy Spirit is not in a single measure an object of participation for those who are worthy, but rather he divides his energy in proportion to their faith: while remaining simple in substance, he is varied in his powers.

We do not receive the whole Holy Spirit according to his divine essence and hypostasis, even though we participate in the Holy Spirit. But it is according to the divine energies and we receive these partially and in accordance with our faith. This is why we have a spirituality and doctrine of holiness and sainthood. It is because we understand and teach that holiness is not a binary condition – either we are entirely holy or not. But it is a matter of growth in the grace and life of the Holy Spirit according to our reception and participation in the divine energies – the divine work in our life.

It is God’s purpose that we become like him, as he has created us to be like him, and as St Paul has already been quoted, so that his divine power might be at work in us. But we do not become God in essence and we do not participate in the divine essence, but as the Fathers have always said, we participate in the divine energies, the being-at-work of God.



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