[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.