Uncreated Energies. Part Three: The Distinction Between Essence and Energy

Uncreated Energies. Part Three: The Distinction Between Essence and Energy May 10, 2021

geralt: Light Energies Emerging From A Cross / pixabay

What we know of God, we know through God’s energies, that is, God’s operations. We do not know what God is by nature. Those operations, those energies, provide us the means to describe God, indeed, to predicate names to God:

From this we see the necessity of giving to God many names. For, since we cannot know Him naturally except by arriving at Him from His effects, the names by which we signify His perfection must be diverse, just as the perfections belonging to things are found to be diverse. Were we able to understand the divine essence itself as it is and give to it the name that belongs to it, we would express it by only one name. [1]

God itself, there is equally a vast number activities which we see coming from God which we  use to let us know about God. Each activity, each way we come to know God, signifies only the reality of God, but they do so in different ways. We must not confuse the different activities and names associated with them thinking that they all signify the same notion. “It is likewise shown from what has been said that, although names said of God signify the same reality, they are yet not synonyms because they do not signify the same notion.” [2] Truly, there is a diverse, indeed, an infinite number of names which can be used to describe God, each giving us a different insight about God. What we learn from them is true, and so each name presents some element of reality to us; this means that each energy, each name, is itself real. Each of them truly are of God and not other than God when we use them to describe God.  Nonetheless, even though they signify God, we must always remember that they do not determine the divine essence itself, and so in that respect they are distinct from that essence:

According to the true faith of God’s Church which by His grace we hold, God possesses inherent energy that makes Him manifest and is in this respect distinct from His essence. For He foreknows and provides for inferior beings; He creates, sustains, rules and transforms them according to His own will and knowledge. In this way it is clear that He possesses an individual state of being, and that He is not simply essence lacking actual existence. But since all these energies are to be seen not in one but in three Persons, God is known to us as one essence existing in three individual states of being or hypostases. [3]

What we know is God’s energies, God’s activities, and the names which we can then apply to God because of them. These names include, but are not limited to: Good, Beauty, Truth, Justice,  Love, Creator, Sustainer, Preserver, and Healer. Each of them truly signify God and so represent a reality which we should not deny. Each of them are distinct in activity. Each of them represent God even if they do not in themselves contain and present the fullness of the divine essence. When they are used to indicate God, they imply nothing other than God. This is why we must not envision them as being absolutely separate or distinct from the divine nature.

The distinction between essence and energy is real insofar as the operations and activities are real. This is because conventional truths are true even if they are not the absolute truth. The distinction is important so we do not confuse our apprehension with comprehension, or confuse relative qualities which we experience in and through the energies with the essence as it is in itself.  Thus, the essence and energy distinction follows the distinction between absolute and conventional truth, highlighting the reality of God and that we can know God without comprehending God or knowing what God is by essence:

But, the divine nature in all the names which may be contrived remains, just as it is, inexplicable, as is our teaching. For, having learned that it is beneficent, judicious, good, and righteous, and all other such things, we have been taught the different forms of its operations, but we cannot at all recognize any better the nature of the one acting, through a consideration of the operations. When one gives a definition of each of these names and of the nature itself to which these terms have reference, he will not give the same definition of both. But, of things which have a different definition, the nature is also different. Therefore, the substance, of which an enlightening definition has not yet been found, is one thing, but the meaning of the names referring to it, derived from some operation or value, is another. [4]

This is also why, when we talk about giving names to God, to the divine nature itself, we end up saying God is beyond all names, for there is no name which can contain the divine nature itself. “And so it is that the Transcendent is clothed in the terms of being, with shape and form on things which have neither, and numerous symbols are employed to convey the varied attributes of what is an imageless and supra-natural simplicity.” [5] God is clothed with many names, so to speak, through the divine energies. As we discern the meanings of those names, we can represent them, not only with the names, but symbols which present to us the truth of those names, symbols which then can be also named, giving us more names which we can use to represent God. This is how and why Scripture attributes various physical qualities and features with God

For all sorts of reasons and because of all sorts of dynamic energies they have applied to the divine Goodness, which surpasses every name and every splendor, descriptions of every sort – human, fiery, or amber shapes and forms; they praise its eyes, ears, hair, face, and hands, back, wings, and arms, a posterior, and feet. They have placed around it such things as crowns, chairs, cups, mixing bowls, and similar mysterious items of which I will do my best to speak in The Symbolic Theology. [6]

We must not confuse physical objects with the divine nature, for God is Spirit (that is, immaterial and without a physical body). God does not possess literal hands, feet, eyes, hair, or the like. Nonetheless, when we understand them as symbols, they can be symbols which are used to represent God, and so symbols which we name and with such names, talk about God in and through them, such as when we talk about the hand of God. Through them all, it is God and God alone who is being referenced, and so what is said in and through them represents the truth, even if it is the truth presented through mysterious symbols which requires us to properly interpret them if we are not to be mistaken.

The distinction between divine essence and divine energy, a distinction established in dogmatic definitions,[7] does not mean that there is ever a divine energy which exists apart from the divine essence; rather, the energy is of and from the essence and not other than the essence. In and through the energy we truly apprehend God. It is not some creature secondary to God. Thus, the potency and essence of God, likewise, represent this same truth: the potency, flowing from the essence, must not be seen as something added to the essence:

In God, therefore, it must be said without qualification and absolutely that potency and essence do not differ in him at all, or rather that God can be his essence in that way do whatever he can do since that his essence in itself is without qualification his potency. But his potency is not something added to his essence, rather, his essence totally passes into the nature of potency wherever and however it can, whether into an act that remains internally or that passes to the outside, whether it is essential and absolute or personal and relative. [8]

Thus, when talking about the distinction between the energies of God and God’s essence, we are not establishing or adding something to God’s essence, because that is impossible. The divine energies are something in addition to the divine nature but rather they are the way by which the divine nature acts and reveals itself. Because it is the divine nature which acts, the energies truly present to us God and not something other than God, and so the names which we apply to God through the energies are justly applied to God even if God in essence is beyond every such name:

Thus, neither the uncreated goodness, nor the eternal glory, nor the divine life nor those things akin to these are simply the superessential essence of God, for God transcends them all as Cause. But we say He is life, goodness and so forth, and give Him these names, because of the revelatory energies and powers of the Superessential. [9]

[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles. Books One: God. Trans. Anton C Pegis (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), 143 [c31].

[2] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles. Books One: God, 149 [c35].

[3] St. Gregory Palamas, “Topics of Natural and Theological Science and on the Moral and Ascetic Life: One Hundred and Fifty Texts,” in The Philokalia: Volume IV. Trans. and ed. G.E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware, et. al. (London: Faber and Faber, 1995) 411 [#137].

[4] St. Basil, “Letter 189” in Saint Basil: Letter. Volume 2 (186-368). Trans. Agnes Clare Way, CDP (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1955), 33. [This letter could have been written by St. Gregory of Nyssa].

[5] Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Divine Names” in The Complete Works. Trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 52.

[6] Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Divine Names,” in 57.

[7]  At the Third Council of Constantinople it was declared that Christ has two wills and energies, one which is divine, and one which is human, indicating that the divine nature has a will and energy of its own.

[8] Henry of Ghent, Summa of Ordinary Questions. Articles 35, 36, 42, & 45. Trans. Roland J Teske SJ  (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2013), 70 [Art. 35 Q7].

[9] St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads. Trans. Nicholas Gendle (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), 95.


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