The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church

[Some time ago, I asked readers for recommended reading on their branches of Christianity.  Below is my understanding of Eastern Orthodox theology, as gathered from Vladimir Lossky’s “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church”, one of the books recommended to me.  This is the second in a series as I work my way down my reading list.  Orthodox commenters should be considered to have more authority than me on this topic, and I will gratefully take their correction.  The goal of this post, and I hope of the subsequent discussion, will be to accurately describe the Orthodox faith, rather than to criticize or defend it.]

Lossky’s book was first published in French in 1944, so Thomist Catholicism is naturally the tradition to which he most often compares his own, and the “individual” vs. “person” craze of that era definitely left its mark.  These points of familiarity will aid western readers.  Lossky sometimes strikes me as too eager to assert differences between East and West, but the purpose is to explain rather than disparage, making it a good book for our purposes.

Lossky (and, I gather, much of the Eastern tradition) is ultimately motivated by a desire to defend two truths:  1) that God is utterly beyond our knowledge and comprehension, 2) and yet He does make Himself really and immediately accessible to us, especially in mystical experience.  God is both inaccessible and accessible, a seeming paradox that would probably please Lossky and the Eastern Fathers who inspire him.  His goal is to preserve antinomies rather than resolve them; the danger of contradiction worries him far less than that of premature epistemic closure, of replacing the real, incomprehensible God with some construction more amenable to the human mind.

Above all, he wants to avoid a theology (which, naturally, he associates with the West) that reduces God to some kind of essence.  The presence of God in such a system would be defined by the presence of this essential divine quality.  Beatitude would be understood as contemplation of this essence, while even in this life some partial but positive knowledge of the divine essence could be had from God’s creatures, who each participate in it in their own limited way.  To the Greeks, this is just a sort of Platonism with Christian trappings, not the suprarational, personal faith revealed by God.  Against this divine essentialism, Lossky insists that there is much more to God than His essence.

Essence vs. energies

The Orthodox embrace the Palamite distinction between God’s essence and His energies.  God’s essence is totally inaccessible.  No one can know it or participate in it, because to do so would mean to be God Himself.  God’s energies are certain of His activities/operations, the ones that He performs necessarily and eternally.  It is these energies that are communicable and knowable.  Creatures exist by participating in them (not in the essence), and the life of grace consists in sharing in them.  The energies are God Himself, not creatures created by Him, but they are really (not just conceptually) distinct from God’s essence.  That is, they’re not identified as part of God because they exemplify some divine essential quality, but from the fact that they are uncreated.  Orthodox writers sometimes say that God is not “bound” by His essence, that He exceeds and overflows it.

The Western tradition certainly wouldn’t deny that God has operations, but that they are distinct from His essence is an unfamiliar concept to us.  I think that usually the best way to understand an idea is to understand what function it serves, and the essence/energies distinction is used to explain some important distinctions–how God can be knowable and not knowable, how deified man can participate in God’s nature without actually becoming God and losing his own self, and how the begetting/procession of the Son and Spirit differs from the creation of creatures.  The Orthodox won’t like this, but it has a very scholastic feel to me.  (I, of course, don’t intend this as an insult.)

Monarchy in the Trinity

West and East agree that the one divine nature or essence is shared by three persons, but we tend to understand the principle of unity within the Trinity differently.  Modern Westerners’ eyes glaze over when this subject comes up, but the Eastern Orthodox are convinced that the differences are not just a matter of phrasing or emphasis, and that the West has gotten things disastrously wrong.  According to the Orthodox, the Father Himself is the principle of unity, in that He is the sole principle of the Son and Spirit and that the Son and Spirit proceed exclusively through Him.  Hence the Orthodox opposition to the Filioque.  As they see it, giving the Son a role in the production of the Holy Spirit deprives the Father of His role as sole principle, meaning the principle of unity in the Trinity shifts to the divine essence.  What’s more, positing an asymmetry in the production of the Son and Holy Spirit allows Westerners to reduce the divine persons to relations within the divine essence.  This is objectionable because it makes the essence logically prior to the persons (the relations are seen to diversify a more primordial unitary essence), and because it removes the irreducibly personal ground of the divine hypostases.  Thus, one falls into Platonism, where all the attention goes to the essence, with the divine persons being reduced to different modes of possessing this essence, hardly real persons any more at all, because distinct persons are surely more than just distinct relations.  At least, that’s my understanding of their objection.

The economy of the Son vs. the economy of the Holy Spirit

To me, the highlight of the book was the chapters distinguishing the roles of the Son and Holy Spirit in the economy of salvation and theosis.  Here Lossky uses the distinction between nature/person distinction, familiar to Christians from the doctrine of the Trinity, to good effect.  Broadly speaking, the role of the Son is to redeem human nature, and the role of the Holy Spirit is to bring grace to persons.  The Son’s mission is more toward humanity, both in the sense of redeeming our common nature and in the spiritual unity of all men which He establishes in His corporate body, the Church.  The mission of the Spirit is toward each of us as persons, as unique subjects endowed with free will and called by God.  It is for this reason that the Holy Spirit remains invisible and “faceless” to us.  The Son reveals the Father, and the Spirit reveals the Son, but no one reveals the Spirit, for so it must be.  He must efface himself so that the grace He gives can be personally appropriated by each of us, so that each of us can respond to and through grace in a way that is truly our own, with freedom and personal uniqueness intact, and actually enhanced.  (Lossky reminds us here that the supremely personal act is self-abandonment, not self-fulfillment.)  The symmetry between the Son and Holy Spirit is truly marvelous here.  The Son had to conceal His divine nature in order to infuse human nature with His person, while the Holy Spirit must conceal His person to infuse human persons with His nature.  The work of the Son unites; that of the Spirit diversifies.

My experience of contemporary Western Christianity is that the more someone talks about the Holy Spirit, the more likely it is that he’s up to some kind of mischief.  Very often the third person of the Trinity is invoked to defy the teachings associated with the first two.  The Orthodox should be commended for developing a constructive theology of the Holy Spirit.  With its focus on mysticism and theosis, it is in some ways a very personalist, “pneumocentric” form of Christianity.

19 thoughts on “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church

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  3. I am glad that you read Lossky, and I think that your summary treatment is quite fair.

    “His goal is to preserve antinomies rather than resolve them; the danger of contradiction worries him far less than that of premature epistemic closure, of replacing the real, incomprehensible God with some construction more amenable to the human mind.”

    Indeed! I think that this particular characteristic plays an important role in the differences between the East and West.

  4. While I am no expert theologian when it comes to my own faith tradition, from what I understand you don’t make any real errors here in your analysis of the Eastern Tradition. I particularly like how you have worded the relationship between Son and Spirit. I couldn’t have put it better!

  5. Thank you so much for posting this! I grew up in a devout Presbyterian household but in recent years readings on Orthodoxy have resonated with me much more. I appreciate this overview.

  6. Reblogged this on A Cry In The Dark and commented:
    I find Trinitarian theology hopelessly obscure but this is the best explanation I have seen.

    I never heard of the “Filioque” before, I will have to look this up.

  7. Having read Bonald’s summary of R. C. Sproul’s “What is Reformed Theology?” just a few days ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see the second article of the series published this morning. I congratulate Bonald for his work, his reviews of both books seemed to be clear.

    Bonald did well to mention that the historical context of the book, and that its approach is often one of contrasting East and West. This is useful for Western Christians and for Orthodox who live in or are familiar with the West. Lossky is reputed for being orthodox, but the questions he addresses and the way in which he addresses them are sometimes the product of his era.

  8. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/06/14) | The Reactivity Place

  9. I piled up quite a list of recommended books for Bonald in case he investigates the Lutheran tradition, in comments on his piece on Reformed theology. The present piece on Orthodoxy suggests that Bonald wishes to stick with one book per Christian tradition. I will suggest Koberle’s The Quest for Holiness as that book for Lutheran thought. Among other merits, it will provide something of a response to Lossky’s Mystical Theology although it might have been written earlier. This study guide will give some sense of the discussion:

    • I would recommend Harold Senkbeil’s, “Dying to Live: The Power of Forgiveness.”
      Our Holiness, BTW, is not ours — it’s Christ’s imputed holiness, covering us in His righteousness — as He took on himself the blame for all our sin and gave to us His perfect obedience and holiness..
      We are beggars, as Martin Luther said on his deathbed. Nothing can we bring.
      Our salvation is God’s work in us, from beginning to end.

  10. As an ex-Orthodox monk who is now a Catholic, I may have a unique perspective on the matter.

    I became a Catholic for the positive reason that my theological and historical studies confirmed the greater Apostolicity and veracity of the points where Catholics differed from the Eastern schism, chiefly on the primacy of papal jurisdiction and the Immaculate Conception. But the “negative” cause that began my inquiry into Catholicism, was the ever-increasing awareness that the Eastern schismatics had forsaken a Catholic approach (which values the differing ways in which local Churches can express the same Catholic Faith), and had exalted Greek and Byzantine terms, customs, etc., into the only correct ones. Then they went a step further, and turned anti-Latinism into the prime directive of their theological method, and this has caused them to interpret even the Greek Fathers in novel ways, finding one pretext or another to reject their teaching on Original Sin, concupiscence, the propitiatory atonement of our Lord’s Passion, divorce and remarriage, contraception, etc.

    Nowhere was this tendency (of showing patriotism by scorning the Latins at any theological price) more on display, than in the Palamite controversy over the energies. It is very clear from the Greek Fathers that they agree, along with the Latin Fathers, that the nature of the Trinity is one, and all of its operations/energies are one, and that the only thing distinguishing the Persons is the relations between Them. I had some Patristic quotes to put here, but the message was getting long, so I’ll omit them unless anyone asks for them, and I can post them separately. But Ss. Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory Nyssa, John Damascene, Cyril of Alexandria, Epiphanius and Sophronius, just off the top of my head, are quite clear on this point. That which distinguishes the Father, is being unbegotten; that which distinguishes the Son, is being begotten; that which distinguishes the Spirit, is procession. In every other aspect, the Fathers are careful to emphasize the absolute simplicity of the divine nature. This simplicity is so profound that we cannot speak of the properties of the nature as being distinct things, as they would be in a creature. In God, His will, wisdom, glory, majesty, etc., are all of a piece, all one whole, whereas in a man they are accidents added to his substance. There is thus nothing novel at all, about St. Thomas insisting that there can be no distinction in the divine nature between essence and existing/acting, God is actus purus.

    Indeed, responding to the error that God wills and acts “of His Essence” on the grounds that that which exists of itself is prior to that which exists by means of something else (implying that God exists by means of His Essence, which is therefore “prior” to Him), St. Thomas explicitly rejects the premise that God wills, acts or exists by means of His Essence, and flatly states that “God’s will is not something in addition to His essence, but is itself His Essence.” Does any Greek Father explicitly say this? I’d have to look, because I can’t think of one who says it so flatly. But they all speak of the absolute simplicity of the Divine Nature, of there not being any distinction between His nature, His will, His glory, His majesty, His power, etc. Incidentally, it also refutes those who accuse the West of regarding the Persons as subsequent to the Essence, when obviously the logical priority is the Person whose acting/existing *is* the Essence, from what St. Thomas said above (and what all the Fathers teach, of course). Indeed, when Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware said that “the distinction between the divine essence and the three Persons does not overthrow the simplicity of God,” a more precise Catholic theologian (Dom Illtyd Trethowan) said: “I should refer rather to the distinctions between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit Who *are* God, rather than to a ‘divine essence.'” So, who is really separating the essence from its subsistence in the Persons? So few people understand the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity, and speak as though the vagueness of their understanding were due to “problematic” elements in the Catholic doctrine itself!

    There are two consequences to this. First, it seems odd to speak of the Father qua Father as the principle of Unity in the Trinity, since the Father qua Father is the principle of the distinctions, i.e. the Relations which distinguish the Persons in the Trinity. The Catholic Faith confesses, with the Greek Fathers, that there is a priority of order, though not of time, by which the Father is source of the Son and the Spirit. But the reason why there is unity in the Trinity is not simply because the Father is cause of Son and Spirit (for He is cause of everything), but because the Father gives everything He is to the Son and the Spirit (i.e., eternal subsistence of the divine nature, properly and not by mere participation) save for the proper relation by which He is called Father (i.e., that of being wholly uncaused). So, speaking in a sense, the Father is the cause of the unity in the Trinity because He communicates the divine nature to the other Persons; but the shared nature is the ground of unity, and the Father qua Father, as Begetter and Cause of procession, is the principle of the distinctions between the Persons. And even if we wanted to take up the erroneous line of thought that sees the Filioque as a destruction of the Father’s Monarchy, we would still have to point out that the Son receives His role in the Procession of the Spirit entirely because He receives everything the Father is, save for the relation of being Father (i.e., unbegotten). The Monarchy remains, because even the procession from the Son, is received by the Son from the Father. And yes, the Greek Fathers do clearly teach that the eternal procession of the Spirit involves a reception of the Divine nature from the Father and Son, involving a variety of expressions (from Father and Son, from Father through Son, from Father in Son, etc.). St. Maximos explicitly defended the Latin Filioque against other, objecting Greeks.

    Secondly, this brings us to the problem of Palamism and the energies. This was an internal, Greek fight, and Palamas had been alternately condemned or exonerated by entirely Byzantine synods comprised of entirely Byzantine participants, depending upon what faction held political power at any given point. He was regarded by plenty of his fellow Greeks as a radical innovator, and did not triumph until anti-Palamism was effectively associated with Latin influence – at which point, following the prime directive of Orthodox theology, whatever displeased the Latins was judged to be the Truth.

    It is on the point of the Divine Nature’s simplicity that he erred. As was said above, the Greeks confessed this simplicity along with the Latins, and Greeks and Latins alike admitted the absolute unity and simplicity of the nature, operations/energies, essence, existence, etc., admitting that only the relations between the Persons are distinct – making there to be a distinction in the Divine Persons, but not in the Divine Nature. Now, the philosophers and theologians had always agreed that there were two kinds of being – self-subsistent being (αὐθυπόστατον, that which exists “per se”) and being that received its subsistence from another (ἀνυποστατον, that which exists “per aliud,” by means of something else). The distinction is between the created and the Uncreated, contingent being vs. Being Itself. Now, Palamas introduced a third category, the ἐνυπόστατον, “subsisting-in,” which exists neither of itself nor by means of something else, which is uncreated but which is not self-subsistent as only the divine Essence can be. It is a third category of being into which God puts His nature, so that man can safely touch Him without having to touch His incommunicable Essence. This distinction is a total innovation, is ultimately nonsensical, and does violence to the Divine Nature’s simplicity – for, whereas a distinction in Persons is not at all a distinction in nature, a distinction whereby some element of God’s nature is in a separate category of being from His Essence, is indeed an outrageous innovation and a major addition of composition to the Divine simplicity.

    Even the Palamites felt the sting of this accusation, and spoke in confusing ways that left one unsure of whether the distinction was real or nominal. Palamas insisted that the energies were not separable from the Essence; his own follower, the Patriarch Philotheos Kokkinos, explicitly stated that “now, the distinction [between the energies and Essence] is mental, but the union is real and actual” (“ἡ μὲν διάκρισις ἐπινοίᾳ, ἡ δὲ ἕνωσις πραγματικὴ, ἀχώριστος,” Against Gregoras, 151.880C of the Patrologia Graeca). Or again, “The Divine Essence exists in itself (καθ ‘εαυτὴν), but the energy exists in (ἐνύπαρχει), and is conjoined to the Essence… it is one thing ‘to exist’ and another thing ‘to exist in’ something and to be ‘conjoined’ to something.” This really is unacceptable to the Catholic mind, including that of the Greek Fathers. St. Thomas upholds the divine simplicity: “Every thing, in which ‘essence’ and ‘existence’ are different things, is composite; but God is not composite, and so His essence and His existing are the same thing” (Summa Contra Gentiles, I:22). This merely upholds what all Fathers, Greek and Latin, taught: that the essence, existence, action, properties, etc., of the divine nature are not at all distinct, but are one and simple unity. Therefore, St. Thomas admits the only sensible thing: that if there is no distinction in these things, the man who receives God’s grace is placed in immediate contact with God, as He is, His essence. This is far more radical a participation in the Divine Nature than the Orthodox doctrine allows, so we should never feel that they have a “more exalted” view of man and theosis than we do, though they often misunderstand our terms (like “created grace”) and disparage us for them. When speaking of “created grace,” for example, St. Thomas clarifies that of course the grace itself is divine and uncreated, but he calls it “created grace” when he speaks of it as inhering in a creature. And this is why St. Thomas’ (and the Catholic) doctrine is so much more orthodox: rather than place the “half-way house” of contact with God into a third category of being inside the simple, divine nature, St. Thomas puts the halfway house into our composite and creaturely mode of experiencing this contact:

    “…in Book 3 of On the Soul, the Philosopher speaks about the intellect’s knowledge that is connatural to us according to the condition of this life. And in this way, God is known by us only through a fleeting proxy (“phantasma”), not indeed of Himself but of an effect of His by which we reach Him. But, as a result of this, the fact that there can be some knowledge of God in the intellect is not withdrawn – knowledge not by the way natural to us but by a higher way, namely, by the influence of the Divine Light, which has no need of such a fleeting proxy.” Scriptum Super Libros Sententiarum, I.iii.1

    For both Palamas and St. Thomas, the Divine Light accompanies a supernatural and direct knowledge of God. Palamas mistakenly believes that, because the Essence is incomprehensible and unlike us, man cannot have been put into contact with it. Thus, the light must be something actually divine by nature, yet distinct from God’s essence, and so Palamas invents the “phantasma,” the “fleeting proxy” of the “enhypostatic” energies, neither existing of themselves as God, nor existing by participation as a creature, but occupying some ill-defined category between pure and contingent being. It is confusing how this would not violate the divine simplicity, and so it is left unresolved whether this is a nominal or actual distinction, and if it is merely nominal, how it is really any different from what St. Thomas teaches (i.e., that the distinction is in our perception/experience of this fact, and not in the fact itself). St. Thomas believes man can be put in direct contact with God, with His Essence (for there is no distinction), can even have the Beatific Vision, but cannot understand or comprehend God as He is in Himself. For St. Thomas the divine light is properly called divine, because whatever it is in and of itself is divine – “the light which is God,” the children at Fatima said – but our experience of the light as light is an effect experienced by us as creatures, who experience the uncreated light and divinity according to our mode, albeit a mode which is supernaturally elevated and perfected, even deified, by direct participation in the divine nature according to our capacity.

    The Church may be in crisis, but the Lord will destroy our enemies with the breath of His mouth; great is the glory of the Catholic and Apostolic Faith! Forgive the long message, but it seemed the only fitting reply to such a great subject.

      • Sure, Kristor. Bonald, I ask your forgiveness for cluttering your blog! But since some wanted the Patristic passages, I’ll supply them. For easy reference to the original texts, I will give the numerical citations [in brackets] of the passages, from this work:

        Those who know Greek or Latin can find many more relevant passages cited in this book; just turn to the back, pages 763-766, and look under all the various topics on “Deus Unus” (the One God) and “Deus Trinus” (the Triune God). I obviously won’t be translating all of them! Every Catholic should have this book, because it provides a substantial smattering of Patristic quotes on almost every topic of Catholic doctrine, at least when it comes to dogmatic theology. Those who don’t know Greek/Latin, will find that it has been translated, retaining the numerical references but slightly edited, by William A Jurgens in the three volume work, “The Faith of the Early Fathers.”

        The Nature of the Divinity, which is simple and not composite, must never be divided into two by the concepts of Father and Son, unless some difference deigns to show itself – I do not say according to the Essence, but considered external thereto, by which the Person of Each is brought forth abiding in a particular Hypostasis, and into the unity of the Divinity, which unity is bound together by an exact sameness of nature.

        – St. Cyril of Alexandria
        Treasury on the Holy and Consubstantial Trinity [2067]

        But there neither is, nor ever shall be such a dogma in the Church of God, that would prove the Simple and Incomposite to be not only manifold and variegated, but even constructed from opposites. The simplicity of the dogmas of the Truth proposes God as He is…. ineffable and indescribable, above any meaning that can be invested in a word.

        – St. Gregory Nyssa
        Against Eunomius [1041]

        Now it is not possible to predicate any parts of God; for what is One is indivisible and thereby infinite – not in regards to its being clearly inconceivable, but in regards to its being without distinct parts, and without bounds or limits.

        – St. Clement of Alexandria
        Miscellanies [424]

        So far as we can proceed, ‘God’ and ‘Existing One’ are the proper names of His essence; and especially of these two, ‘Existing One,’ not only because that is the name… by which He called Himself when He commanded Moses… but also because we find that name more appropriate… We are enquiring into the Nature, Whose Being is absolute and not conjoined to any other; in its proper sense, Being is peculiar to God and belongs entirely to Him.

        – St. Gregory Nazianzen
        Orations [993]

        It logically follows, if the Essence and Nature of God is one of simple, incomposite unity, and if the proper name of His Essence is “Existing One,” and Being is the peculiar possession and property of His nature which is without division, we must not distinguish between the Essence and Existing of God, nor between the Essence of God and any other, extant, Divine Attribute, which are distinct from each other only in our terms and concepts, and not at all in God. The Fathers will emphasize this when referring to the distinction of the Persons as well.

        We confess that in the Divinity there is one Nature, but say that there are three Persons truly existing, and that everything pertaining to the nature and Essence is simple; we recognize the distinction of the Persons solely in their three proper characteristics: i.e., uncausedness and Fatherhood; causedness and Sonship; causedness and Procession.

        – St. John Damascene
        The Source of Knowledge [2362]

        But all these other names [he has just gone through a list of divine names and attributes], therefore, are to be understood as common to the whole Divinity, in the same, simple way, not individually or conjointly. The names Father, Son and Holy Spirit, however, and ‘uncaused’ and ’caused,’ ‘unbegotten’ and ‘begotten,’ and ‘made to proceed,’ are separately attributed, for these are not descriptive of the Essence, but of relations to each other and manner of subsistence.

        – ibid

        Father, Son and Holy Spirit are One in all respects, except those of being Unbegotten, Begotten and Proceeding… Nor is there any difference of will or of judgment or of operation/energy or of power or of anything else such as would in our case produce actual and definite separation.

        – Ibid

        For the Persons of the Divinity are separated from each other neither in time, place, will, action, passivity, nor any such things as are perceived amongst men, but only in that the Father is Father and not Son, the Son is Son and not Father, and likewise the Holy Spirit is neither Father nor Son.

        – St. Gregory Nyssa
        To the Greeks [1039]

        … if I can put it like this to you for the sake of clarification, the difference of their relations to each other gives rise to the difference of their names … But this is certainly not because of any deficiency nor of any subordination in respect to Essence. Rather, the very fact of not being begotten, of being begotten, and of proceeding, has effected that one is called Father, another Son, and another (of Whom we now speak) the Holy Spirit; and thus the distinction of the three Persons may be preserved in the one nature and dignity of the Divinity.

        – St. Gregory Nazianzen
        Fifth Theological Oration [996]

        ‘Father’ is neither the name of an essence, you wise-asses, nor of an energy/operation. I would indeed be scared of your distinction if it were necessary to accept one or the other alternative, rather than to discard both and state a third and truer one: Father is the name neither of an essence nor of an energy, but of the relation which describes how the Father stands to the Son, and the Son to the Father.

        – St. Gregory Nazianzen
        Third Theological Oration

        Hence also, since the distinction in the Trinity is only of personal relations, whereas the Essence, Existence, Acting, Willing, Operating, etc. of the Divinity is simple and one, the fathers always confessed that any operation of the Divinity ad extra is common to all Three, not conjointly but simply and as One.

        Every divine energy touching on creation and named according to our various conceptions of it, has its origins from the Father, proceeds through the Son and is perfected in the Holy Spirit. For this reason the name of the operation/energy is not divided by the number of Operators/Energizers, the action of each in regard to anything is not separate and peculiar; rather, whatever occurs, whether in regard to the acts of His providence on our behalf or in reference to the establishment and governance of the cosmos, takes place by the action of the Three.

        – St. Gregory of Nyssa
        To Ablabios (That There are not Three Gods) [1037, though I have quoted more of the passage, following Jurgens, than is cited by Journel]

        Therefore, the exact sameness of the operation/energy in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, clearly indicates the indistinguishable sameness of the Nature. Wherefore, even if the name of the Divinity indicates the nature, nevertheless to peculiarly adapt that appellation (of Sanctifier) to the Holy Spirit, demonstrates the common quality of the Essence.

        – St. Basil the Great
        Epistle (189) to Eustathios [920]

        So, all but the relations between the Persons in the Trinity is One, Simple and Incomposite, the ineffable and unknowable Essence or Nature of the Godhead.

        One must not always look for a perfection of theological terms, especially early on, before the Church had a chance to weigh all the concepts and terms for a particular topic. For example, one will hear St. Basil the Great say the following: “The energies of God are various, but His Essence is simple. We say, however, that we know our God from His energies. His essence itself, we do not undertake to approach. His energies come down to us, but His essence remains inaccessible” (letter to Amphilochius). Well, look right there! Essence and energies are different, we don’t dare approach the Essence, but we know God in the energies! What could be more clear? But here, as in the just-cited epistle to Ablabios, we see the central issue: the terms energies/operations denote our awareness of the Divine activity in/upon creatures – thus, they can receive an objective treatment (as they are in God) or a subjective treatment (as we experience them).

        There are two options: one can take the road of Palamas, which placed immense emphasis on the experiential, and then imposed our experience of distinction in the energies upon the Divine nature as a real distinction therein, latching upon an expression here or there of the Fathers. Or, one can take the road of St. Thomas, which carefully synthesizes the whole sense of the Fathers’ statements, knowing that they sometimes speak one way and sometimes another (depending on the objective or subjective nature of their appraisal), and preserve both the simplicity of the Divine Nature’s Essence/Existing/Operating, and our experience of it according to our mode as creatures. Are we talking about the operations/energies as they are in their origin, in God? Then they are really one and simple and in no way separate from the unalloyed unity of the Divinity. Or, are we talking about the operations/energies “as they touch upon creation,” as St. Gregory says, and as “they come down to us” as St. Basil says? In that case, our terms and concepts for them are multitudinous – grace, will, power, perfection, sanctification, illumination, quickening, healing, correcting, etc., etc. and are experienced according to our mode as creatures. As was said, even the Palamites felt the pressure not to introduce a real distinction into the Divine Nature, and it is sometimes difficult to see whether their distinction is nominal or actual, and if nominal, whether it substantially differs from St. Thomas’ view in any way.

        Of course, it is compounded by the fact that there is so much in the Greek Fathers about the impossibility of seeing the Divine Essence – true, since what is there to “see” in something that is altogether invisible and unlike any created thing or medium? Yet even the Greek Fathers do speak of the Beatific Vision:

        It is impossible, especially for human nature, to see God; it is not suffered that the visible should see the invisible. But the invisible God in His love of man, strengthening the powerless with power, will bring about by His own power a way that it may see the infinite and invisible, not to an infinite extent, but as our nature has been enabled to do so, and to the extent by which the powerless shall be empowered.

        – St. Epiphanius of Salamis
        Against All Heresies [1106]

        And anyone who reads the Philokalia will read much about the nous/intellect, and how it is deiform, and given a kind of infinite capacity, and rendered capable of contemplating God in a noetic (and not corporeal) way. And the person who has done this, will find that the Summa’s explanation of the vision of God (I, q12) speaks along the same lines – i.e., obviously there is no corporeal or sensate faculty by which man can see the Essence as it is, but via a certain similitude of the intellect to the divine nature, God unites himself to the spiritual vision of man, allowing man to see God immediately, but without comprehension. This is the genius and great gift of St. Thomas. Whereas the Fathers sometimes speak imprecisely, due to the nature of their writings, so that one must read them carefully to understand the substantial sense behind their sometimes varied expressions, St. Thomas synthesizes the substantial sense, reconciles apparent contradictions, resolves ambiguities and lays things out clearly with a minimum of elaborative rhetoric. It was my gradual realization that St. Thomas’ system preserved the integral truth of the whole Patristic system (who cares, if he did so in Aristotelian terms and methods?), that led to my softening towards Catholicism.

    • Hello CuiPertinebit,

      Thank you. That is very interesting. I confess that this idea of Divine Light is obscure to me, whether in Orthodox or Catholic sources.

      I had definitely noticed this urge among Orthodox theologians to always try to differentiate themselves from the Latin West. Most of the Orthodox writers I’ve encountered are living in the West, though, so that seemed natural enough. It is peculiar, though, if, as you say, this is such a driving preoccupation among Orthodox everywhere.

      • I struggled for a long while over the essence-energies distinction. This post was delayed weeks as I thought and skimmed other sources. It might help if I could see how these distinctions are supposed to play out in more mundane objects I can understand. For example, are my energies really distinct from my essence? Can any Orthodox readers help me out on this.

        The best I could make out is that the energies belong necessarily to God, meaning I guess that they must proceed somehow from His essence while not being contingent like creatures, but in such a way that God’s essence isn’t imprinted on them, meaning that knowing an energy doesn’t allow one to infer the essence. I haven’t concerned myself with the question of whether any of the Fathers believed such a thing. It is certainly inconsistent with Divine Simplicity as usually understood (another hard concept to wrap one’s head around), but it’s not obviously incoherent.

      • Yes, it really is a pervasive problem (because contact with the West is pervasive); old-fashioned theologians tucked away in their enclaves (often Serbs and old-school Russians) are usually amongst the few who escape this trend. For example, Bishop Artemy of the Serbian Orthodox Church wrote a solidly patristic treatise on marriage and contraception, which could just as easily have come from Pope St. Agatho (though neo-Catholics and “Theology of the Body” types will feel like they’ve wandered into another universe).

        By far the most problematic error in this regard, however, is the changing Orthodox view on Original Sin, and consequently, the Passion of our Lord. They (“they” meaning “mainstream consensus amongst modernizing Orthodox”) now deny that the Original Sin transmits anything more than mortality and liability to the natural passions, calling the traditional view “Augustinianism” and heresy. It would take a longer post to demonstrate how this contradicts the Patristic testimony even of the Greek Fathers, both directly and indirectly, via their teaching on the vitiated passions and Christ’s Incarnation. The logical conclusion of this, is an exclusively “therapeutic” view of Christ’s work, where He merely provides a remedy to death via the Resurrection (and therefore may as well have died in His sleep), and any hint that He offered a propitiatory sacrifice of atonement to the Father, is regarded as Anselmian and heretical. Constantly adduced, is the quote of St. Gregory Nazianzen, where he emphasizes that God was not in need of the payment of His Son’s Blood; this is freely admitted, but they then ignore the rest of what St. Gregory says about how It nevertheless was a pleasing and propitiatory Sacrifice to the Father. And even if St. Gregory had a particular view, it would in any case not be the mark of a pious mind, to pit one father’s thought against the ubiquitously patristic, and even scriptural, way of speaking. Indeed, this was one of my early warnings that there was a problem: I realized that many, modern Orthodox thinkers, if they didn’t know that St. Paul was St. Paul, would condemn his epistles for their Augustinianism and Latinizing tendencies!

      • And, just to start giving an answer to your question, as to whether your energies are distinct from your essence, the fact is that your existing/existence is itself distinct from your essence, whereas in God they are the same. Your energies could be said to arise from faculties proper to your essence, but your energies only exist by means of your act of existing, your being.

        A good book to start going through Thomism and the categories of being, acting, potentiality, etc., is Garrigou-Lagrange’s “Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought.” I don’t know if there has been an attempt on the Greek side to arrange a systematic synthesis of the same topic.

    • That is a lot. Well, let me add this note for those interested:
      “St. Maximus on the filioque”
      (a brief post by Peter Gilbert about Maximus’ letter concerning the controversy). Gilbert’s explanatory notes are helpful, and they show — once again (and for the billionth time) — why patristic texts serve as ambiguous testimony in these disputes. All of this has been hashed and rehashed for centuries. CP researched the issues and decided one way. Others have done the same research and differed in their judgment (myself included). Given the muddied waters, I wonder whether most (all?) of the folks who enter into these treacherous rivers allow other considerations to drive their wayfaring. Take, for instance, the issue of the Bishop of Rome’s authority in the early centuries. As I once blogged,

      I have “been there and done that” with endless arguments over papal claims, replete with innumerable patristic references, scriptural commentary, conciliar minutes, and canon law case precedents in cross-diocesan judicial appeals. My basic opinion, sufficient for the present purpose, is that one can build a case for papal supremacy by employing extraordinary circumstances as normative ones. During all the Christological controversies, some bishops played ruthless politics for the sake of the faith while others did so for personal power. A pious bishop in exile often sought assistance wherever he could, and canonically questionable actions were taken and justified by the higher goal of defending the faith from heresy. Rome was usually a haven of sanity during these disputes; early Western Christians were not as a theologically interested, philosophically educated, or politically connected as their Greek brethren in the East. Hence, the Roman Church was blessedly boring while the major theological controversies raged across the Empire. It was often necessary, then, for orthodox hierarchs to seek Rome’s interference in ways that defied common practice. Papal supremacists see their justification therein. The will needs very little evidence to claim the inviolable correctness of its desires . . .

      Nonetheless, the normal position of ecumenical Church government was decentralized and conciliar. Such is the Orthodox ideal to this day, though it has taken many forms, with the autocephalous system’s being the current organization. At any rate, the subject has become a moot point. Rome largely abandoned its orthodoxy centuries ago, and whatever primacy the bishop of Rome should have had has become an anachronism. Petrine fundamentalism aside, the Churches’ deference to Rome rested as much on the Roman Christian community’s sobriety and fidelity as on Rome’s status as the old capital, on its being a major center of power, communication, commerce, transportation, and ideas, and on its giving the world countless martyrs, especially Saints Peter and Paul. When Rome forsook its faith, it forfeited its special honor.

      The second point that I hold firmly to be true undoubtedly sways the way I read the ancient controversies and their texts. If one particular interpretation behind the Council of Sardica leads to clown masses and the pope’s authority to declare anthropogenic global warming, I know what I am deciding!

      CP criticizes the Orthodox for becoming reactive toward Latin theology, and I believe that he is correct. Roman doctrine and the Orthodox rejection of it have strongly influenced Orthodox theological thinking for centuries, and this is both understandable and unhealthy — in the same way that reaction toward “Enlightenment” thought has largely determined the thinking among those who reject it ever since. Moreover, when the Orthodox see the consequences of Latin tendencies, they begin to question even ancient Latin elements that may have led to the Reformation, Trent, and the first and second Vatican councils. That seems reasonable to me.

      At some point (and perhaps always), the Greeks and the Latins began to speak past each other when they focused on certain theological and philosophical issues. Many readers here are familiar with the Christological controversies that led to and resulted from Chalcedon and with contemporary attempts by many in and among Rome, the Orthodox, and the Non-Chalcedonians to excuse it all as a big, sad misunderstanding. I wonder whether these softies are right — and whether perhaps the same dynamic is at work with many East-West controversies, like CP’s example of the Palamite issue. For certain, when we approach the inner life of the Trinity — when we begin to conceive of divinity — we are well beyond a safe harbor. Everything that we think — every idea, every mental tool — applies to creation. When we apply such to God, we should be very careful — and humble. CP calls Gregory’s distinction of the divine energies an outrageous innovation — just as the Orthodox might call the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception an outrageous innovation. Both doctrines developed from prior, ancient commitments that played themselves out philosophically within their respective community’s theological-philosophical system.

      P.S.) See Gilbert’s delightful recent post, “Dont Curse Plato.”


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