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The Energies of God are a central principle of theology in the Eastern Orthodox Church, understood by the orthodox Fathers of the Church, and most famously formulated by Gregory Palamas, defending the hesychast practice. Which involves the vision of a "Divine Light" against charges of heresy brought by Barlaam of Calabria. In support of his understanding of ancient tradition, Palamas argued that conflating "nature" and "things pertaining to nature" would make a Christian fall into Heresy.

Basic principles

The Essence of God

The concept of God's essence in Eastern Orthodox theology is called (ousia) and is distinct from his energies (energeia in Greek, actus in Latin) or activities in the world. 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 is taught in Eastern Christianity as uncreated and incomprehensible. God's ousia is defined as "that which finds no existence or subsistence in another or any other thing". God's ousia is beyond all states of (nous) consciousness and unconsciousness, being and non-being (like being dead or anesthetized), beyond something and beyond nothing. The God's ousia has not in necessity or subsistence needing or having dependence on anything other than itself. God's ousia as uncreated is therefore incomprehensible to created beings such as human beings. Therefore God in essence is superior to all forms of ontology (metaphysics). The source, origin of God's ousia or incomprehensibliness is the Father hypostasis of the Trinity, One God in One Father. The God's energies are "unbegotten" or "uncreated" just like the existences of God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) both God's existences and energies are experience-able or comprehensible. God's ousia is uncreatediness, beyond existence, beyond no existence, God's hyper-being is not something comprehensible to created beings. As St John Damascene states "all that we say positively of God manifests not his nature but the things about his nature."

Distinction between Created and Uncreated

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 can not 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.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 manifestion 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 comprehenisible 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). Where as 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 inline 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. 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 a dialectial attempt to rationalize the uncreated.

Denial of separation is speculative theology and not empirical theology

The Western Christian church as a matter of dogma rejects the separation of God's incomprehesible essence from God's Activities or energies in creation. Therefore making God his activities or energies, rather than saying God is in essence, being, nature and substance distinct from his activities. Just as Eastern Christians make the distinction between God in essence and God in hypostases. Here distinction does not reflect discord (duality) but rather is complimentary. The denial of separation between God's essence, being, nature and substance and God's creation (from those activities) itself in Pagan philosophy is called Pantheism. In the denial of what God is in essence, being, nature, substance (ousia) from what God does via energies, acts, power, force (energeia and dunamis). This line of thought is the basis for the accusations of Pantheism. The concepts of energeia and dunamis are taken from various Pagan Hellenic Philosophers including Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus. This distinction here between Hellenistic philosophy and Eastern Christianity is that, from the perspective of Hellenistic pagan (folk) philosophy, God is a substance, essence, being or nature, comprehensible (immanent) which as a modalistic, linear sequential monad, or singularity emanates, reality. In contrast, from the perspective of Eastern Christianity, God's ousia is apophatic and beyond all forms of finite expression and understanding. Here in Eastern Christianity God because of his ousia is beyond anything and all things comprehensible. God is beyond energeia and dunamis, God as infinite called the Father hypostasis has within his essence, being, nature, substance, of infinite, incomprehensibility and can not be defined or contained into any form of comprehension. Therefore undermining and also transcending metaphysics, God's ousia is not reconcilable to human reason or human rationale and as incomprehensible means God is strictly not one, God is not unity, God is beyond these concepts and is therefore in ousia not definable, experience-able, detectable. God manifests to man in experienceable (but non-confinable) ways as his existences or realities and his energies. Eastern Christians, believe that, at best, God is hyper-being in ousia. Orthodox theologians charge that, through the philosophical teachings of the West, this distinction is denied in Western Christianity. Western Christianity the East charges would not arrive at this teaching if Western theologians used theoria rather than speculative philosophy to validate their understanding of God.

The Distinctions of God

The existences of God

God as infinite and hyper-being (as existent) is called the Father (hypostasis) as origin of all things created and uncreated. 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). 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 the God the Father (hypostasis).The God as uncreated in ousia is infinite and is therefore beyond (not limited to) being or existence. 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).

The realities of God

It is also taught that there are three distinct realities of God. There is the hypostases of God in existence; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Second there is the essence, nature, substance, being of God as ousia that confirms that each hypostasis of God is God, as only God is uncreated. God is uncreated as infinite, God is uncreated as logos, God is uncreated as immaterial Spirit, life, consciousness. There finally is God as the energies (uncreated and supernatural) activities of God in the created world as well as the created world itself i.e. love, beauty, faith, good, kindness, truth, humility and wisdom.

Economy of God

With the Essence-Energies distinction the economy of God or oikonomian in Greek is established within Eastern Orthodox theology. This allows for one to speak of God in essence, being, nature, substance and also of God as his activities in the world. As one must not confuse the transcendential and unknowable essence, being, nature, substance of God with His activity in history.

In Eastern Christianity Hellenistic philosophical words or concepts are used, due to it being the common language of the Christians and Pagans at the time of Christianitys appearance, but the meanings and the concepts themselves are different. In Eastern Christianity God's energies can not be created or destroyed unlike in the West where some energies are created and others not. Energies here as immanence of God are the activities (noesis) of the human spirit (nous) that validate the existence of the uncreated in the world. They are unbegotten or uncreated, because they are an experience of something which comes from beyond existence. Orthodox theology holds that while humans can never know God's "Essence" and that direct experience of God would simply obliterate us (much as Moses could not survive seeing God's face), God's "Energies" can be directly experienced (as Moses could see God's back and live). The energies here being distinct from the existences or hypostasis, of the God in Trinity. The energies of God are not considered to be unique to a specific hypostasis of the Trinity. Instead, they are common to all three.

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 1 Cor. 13:2 - 13:13). As is also the case of Gregory of Palamas that God is grace and deifying illumination.

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 Damascusmarker. 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.

Catholic perspectives

Catholic philosopher and blogger Dr. Michael Liccione argues that the Essence-Energies Distinction, as expounded by St. Gregory Palamas, is true and is compatible with the Catholic dogma of absolute divine simplicity according to the definition given at the Fourth Council of the Lateran and the First Vatican Council. Dr. Liccione says that Divine simplicity and the distinction between the Divine Essence and the Divine Energies would be contradictory if Divine Essence is taken "to mean God as what He eternally is" because "God is actus purus, and thus has no unrealized potentialities." However, if we define God's essence as what "He necessarily is apart from what He does," then God's "essence is incommunicable" and communication would necessitate Divine actions, or Energies. Thus there is a real distinction between God's Essence, what "He necessarily is apart from what He does," and His Energies, "God as what He eternally does."

This latter-day treatment contrasts sharply with the polemical assessments in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, in which Adrian Fortescue charges Palamas with heresy and "monstrous errors" and S. Vailhé characterizes Hesychasm as a "no more than a crude form of auto-suggestion" and calls the theology of Palamas a "resurrection of polytheism."As Thomas Aquinas in his work Summa Contra Gentiles dedicates an entire chapter to the concept. Aquinas' chapter is called That in God Existence and Essence is the same.
:4."'Existence' denotes a certain actuality: for a thing is not said to 'be' for what it is potentially, but for what it is actually. But everything to which there attaches an actuality, existing as something different from it, stands to the same as potentiality to actuality. If then the divine essence is something else than its own existence, it follows that essence and existence in God stand to one another as potentiality and actuality. But it has been shown that in God there is nothing of potentiality (Chap. XVI), but that He is pure actuality. Therefore God's essence is not anything else but His existence."
:5. Everything that cannot be except by the concurrence of several things is compound. But nothing in which essence is one thing, and existence another, can be except by the concurrence of several things, to wit, essence and existence. Therefore everything in which essence is one thing, and existence another, is compound. But God is not compound, as has been shown (Chap. XVIII). Therefore the very existence of God is His essence. This sublime truth was taught by the Lord to Moses (Exod. iii, 13, 14) If they say to me, What is his name? what shall I say to them? Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: He who is hath sent me to you: showing this to be His proper name, He who is. But every name is given to show the nature or essence of some thing. Hence it remains that the very existence or being of God is His essence or nature.
For Aquinas since God is simplistic and unchanging, God in concept lacks potential (dunamis in Greek). God according to Aquinas is pure energy or action.Therefore without potential, God not being dynamic (ever-changing), God as eternal, is without distinction between his actions in the world (called existence) and his essence.

Orthodoxy and Scholasticsm

The use of this syllogism by Aquinas has the potential to be viewed by the East as speculative and limiting to the infinite God. Since it appears to confuse the definitions and distinctions about God. Mostly God's essence, being, nature, substance with God's activities and potential as made manifest through God's created beings and creation. As God can be limitedly known through God's creation or what God has caused or created (see logos). As it removes the distinction of God's ousia from God's economy. That is, what God's immanence and transcendence cause or trigger by interfacing with the Material World. Thereby applying to the infinite God, human rational and philosophical limitations and attributes. It appears to attempt to reconcile God with the goals of Pagan philosophy in specific Aristotle's concept of the Pagan Divine. Philosophy as the theory that the exercise of reason, rather than experience, authority, or spiritual revelation, provides the primary basis for knowledge. The energy or actions of God as well as the power or potential of God are in God's creation, are not to God or as God is within God's being (God's ousia). God's acts and potential, God created by creating the cosmos. It is in God's relationship with man and the created world as can be seen in the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa, not God in and onto God's self. Gregory of Nyssa taught "Glory to Glory", which presents God's creation as energy or action and dynamic or potential and how God's creation is constantly transformative by God's uncreated presence in and amongst His creation. Our knowledge of God, therefore, confined as it is to His operations in the created order, leads to a concept of salvation involving eternal yearning (Epektasis) for an ever-more intimate knowledge of God's powers. This is how St. Peter's famous reference to our becoming "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4) came to be interpreted. Therefore God remains eternal and without change in his nature, substance, being, essence. Through the process of theosis mankind's understanding of God is infinite in potential or power (dunamis in Greek), (potentia in Latin). Unlike in Aristotle and the scholastic movement, the Christian God greatly differs from the Pagan God in that the Christian God truly remains Uncreated. It is God's interaction (economy) with the Created that manifests as Action (energy) and Potential (dunamis).

Byzantine and Russian Philosophy

After the conversation of Pagan Greek society to Christianity many of the pagan philosophical concepts where re-imaged to conform to Christian concepts. The philosophical concepts where changed to reflect the Christian understanding of the Roman and then Byzantine society and by proxy Byzantine philosophy. Which then led to the formation of Russian philosophy. Where the God of the Pagan Philosophers was a deterministic God who was based on a rational Good called order. The Christian God was Uncreated in essence and brought meaning to existence through reconcillation of the individual to the God while not absorbing the individual into God (in contrast to Pagan Deification). This understanding, was over time articulated as God in his ousia as incomprehensible, God is however immanent in the material world as both finite, creation (ordered and limited) and infinite (beyond order understanding and limitation). Unlike the various dualist concepts of creation and divinity the Christian God is not in essence, nature, being and substance, order or chaos for example but is beyond these concepts of created beings. Created and Uncreated are complimentary and not in opposition to one another. As the God of Christianity (unlike the Pagan creator) creates ex-nihilo it is also this God who is experienced logically (dianoia) and intuitively, noetically (noesis). Evil in Christianity is not strictly the agent of chaos (misfortune) who manifests in the material world causing hardship, tragedy called the absences of Good. Evil in Christianity is the rebellion to and vilification of life. Evil culminates into the active pursuit of the destruction of existence. In Orthodox Christianity mankind has chosen to use his freewill for selfish aims (to have a separate being from God) and therefore caused the fall of man.


'We ought at all times to wait for the enlightenment that comes from above before we speak with a faith energized by love; for the illumination which will enable us to speak. For there is nothing so destitute as a mind philosophising about God, when it is without Him'." Of "Spiritual Knowledge" Discourse number 7 Philokalia volume 1 pg 254 — St Diadochos of Photiki

"We know our God from his energies, but we do not claim that we can draw near to his essence; for his energies come down to us, but his essence remains unapproachable." (Letters 234, 1) St. Basil the Great.

See also



  • Vladimir Lossky The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, SVS Press, 1997. (ISBN 0-913836-31-1) James Clarke & Co Ltd, 1991. (ISBN 0-227-67919-9) Copy online
  • David Bradshaw Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom Cambridge University Press, 2004 ISBN 0521828651, 9780521828659 [176176]

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