Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Gregory Palamas and the Essence/ Energies Distinction


… but also some works of God are without beginning, as the Fathers also rightly affirm. For was it not needful for the work of providence to exist before Creation, so as to cause each of the created things to come to be in time, out of nonbeing? As it not necessary for a divine knowledge to know before choosing, even outside time? But how does it follow that the divine prescience had a beginning? How could one conceive of a beginning of God’s self-contemplation, and was there ever a moment when God began to be moved toward contemplation of Himself? Never! [Gregory Palamas, The Triads (The Classics of Western Spirituality; Ed. John Meyendorff; trans. Nicholas Gendle; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1983), p. 94]

These works of God, then, are manifestly unoriginated and pre-temporal: His foreknowledge, will, providence, contemplation of Himself, and whatever powers are akin to these. But if this contemplation, prescience, predetermination and will are works of God that are without beginning, then virtue is also unoriginated, for each of His works is a virtue; ... (Ibid., p. 94)


But even if this man considers that everything that has a beginning is created, we for our part know that while all the energies of God are uncreated, not all are without beginning. Indeed, beginning and end must be ascribed, if not to the creative power itself, then at least to its activity, that is to say, to its energy as directed towards created things. (Ibid., p. 96)/p>

The strong influence of Neoplatonism on Eastern Orthodoxy would logically result in a distant and remote deity. Such is however contrary to biblical Christianity. The contradiction is so obvious that Eastern Orthodoxy could not continue being Christian without modifying parts of what it received through Dionysius. This it did in positing a distinction between the essence of God, and His energies. "Energies" can be taken as the workings of God. They are the dynamic workings of God, not to be identified with who God is (essence), neither are they identified with what God does (the works of God). The essence of God is as what Neoplatonism says it is: beyond being, beyond intelligibility, utterly inaccessible to anyone but God. The energies of God are however what humans can perceive. In fact, the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis, sometimes called "deification," is the idea that the believer could partake in the divine energies fully.

In Palamas' Triads, certainly not everything stated is I believe compatible with biblical Christianity. Nevertheless, Palamas' promotion of the essence/ energies distinction is a helpful category. Neoplatonism has forced the issue, showing how immutability if applied to the whole of God would result in a static God, the God of Deism. Therefore, in order to have a vital communion with God (which the East promoted through its misguided monasticism), new philosophical categories were formed. Western Christianity in general was not as strongly influenced by Neoplatonism as the East was, and therefore was slow to see the problems that would arise with a God who has only an essence that is utterly transendent and immutable. The East remained orthodox in their doctrine of God, unlike many Western theologians who came to see the same problems, and therefore invented these categories congrunt to biblical orthodoxy that we can now appropriate.

One argument that Palamas pointed out was to note that the decrees of God and the foreknowledge of God are prior to creation. God's will and His own self-enjoyment (contemplation) are likewise eternal. Yet all these are not "being" but operations of some sort, since they are active in nature. Therefore, it can be seen that these "works" (as utilized by Palamas) of God are "without beginning." These energies are not just within God so to speak, but they translate to "activities" that are "directed towards created things."

Now, the fact that there are these decrees of God and other active operations are clear from Scripture. What is however omitted from the thoughts of many theologians is an attempt to categorize them as either essence or works. The fact of the matter is that it is neither of these categories, and thus the category of "energies" is most appropriate here. Orthodox Western systematic theologians tend to talk about God's essencce, then His attributes (communicable and incommunicable), and subsume these operations under the atttributes of God. The problem is that atttributes are "static" in nature. They describe what God is, not what God does. Therefore, including these active operations under the section on the atttributes of God, or worse, to shift parts of them to the works of God, is I believe to be massive categorical confusion.

God is immutable yet He relates both to Himself and to us His creatures. We must hold to both, and do it without diminishing either of them. Without the category of "energies," I do not see how either of these truths could not but be diminished, to the detriment of our understanding and worship of our living God.

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