top of page

The Essence-Energies Distinction and the Unknowable God


The Essence-Energies Distinction

You have probably heard of towering theologians like Athanasius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Karl Barth. But few of us have ever heard of Gregory Palamas. I had never heard about him until it was suggested to me by a friend to read his work, 150 Chapters and The Triads. He was a formidable theologian born in 1296 in Constantinople (now Istanbul). He died in 1359. Gregory Palamas is enigmatic to you and me because he was from the Eastern Orthodox tradition which most Christians of the West have had little to do with.

 

Much could be said about Gregory and his theological contribution; however, I was interested in the essence-energies distinction which he developed. Others like myself have been intrigued by it, like the theologian, Gavin Ortlund, who gave a lengthy reflection on the topic which I found very helpful, and Austin Suggs of Gospel Simplicity has also interviewed the Orthodox theologian, David Bradshaw on the topic.

 

According to Gregory Palamas, the essence of God is not accessible to human beings making God in his essence unknowable. However, his divine energies are accessible to us, and we can experience them, primarily through prayer and other actions of devotion. I had heard something similar years ago, and I am still unable to place the words, whether it was Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, or Karl Bath, I don’t know, it goes like this, “We can only know God in so far as he has revealed himself to us, but we can never know him in his essence.” I always found this helpful, and the divine essence-energies distinction reminded me of that.

 

Another theologian who is sympathetic towards this notion is the reformed theologian, Michael Horton. He writes in his, The Christian Faith:

 

Eastern theology, however, introduced another category: God’s energies. The sun’s rays are not the sun itself, but they are also not the ground that is warmed by the sun. Rather, they are the shining forth or effulgence of the sun. Similarly, God’s energies (energeia) are neither God’s essence (ousia) nor a created effect but are God’s knowledge, power, and grace directed toward creatures. This view is analogous to the familiar formula in Protestant orthodoxy already mentioned, namely, that we come to know God in his works rather than in his essence.[1]

 

Horton continues to explain that “God reveals his attributes (i.e., characteristics) rather than his hidden essence, what he is like rather than what he is in the inner depths of his hidden majesty.”[2] It is God’s energies that interact with this world and creation, and we can know God through them, but as I mentioned, we will never be able to know God in his essence, its inaccessible to us. In this way the mystery of God is preserved whilst also allowing us to interact with God meaningfully, says Fr Christiaan Kappes.[3]

 

Although not explicit, biblical passages like Exodus 33:18–23 when God showed Moses his glory, and passing by, Moses was only able to see his back. Psalm 104:1–2 which reads, “Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, you are very great! You are clothed with splendor and majesty, covering yourself with light as with a garment, stretching out the heavens like a tent.” The Apostle Paul also talks of God having “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). And then 2 Peter 1:3 talking of God’s power that was “granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” speaks of God’s energies.

 

The concept of divine energies, according to Eastern Orthodoxy means that we can experience a direct personal relationship with God and therefore it encourages us in a life of prayer and devotion. Our participation in God’s energies also has a transforming and sanctifying effect on us as we grow in righteousness and holiness towards union with God. Lastly, it encourages us to steward creation, because God’s energies are active and present in our world which also helps us appreciate the goodness and beauty of his handiwork.

 

While I find the framework of the divine essence and energies distinction fascinating and helpful, it’s not without criticism. Firstly, the emphasis on the idea that we cannot know who God is, we can only know what he is not (apophaticism), and the over-emphasis on mystery makes it difficult to have at least some rational understanding of God. Secondly, articulating the distinction between the essence and energies may be challenging and confusing at times, in my view. For example, love is an energy, yet 1 John 4:8 states that God is love, which suggests his essence. Not to mention here that we can know what God is (see my earlier point). Thirdly, the biblical witness for the essence-energies distinction isn’t very robust. Fourthly, while there are concerns about pantheism or panentheism, I don’t see this posing a problem because the distinction between God and creation is still upheld. Gavin Ortlund has another concern. He feels that it distorts God’s independent self-existence (aseity) and his undivided essential nature (divine simplicity). 

 

Ortlund does however point out that while there certainly are differences, there are similar notions in Western Christianity, namely in Thomas Aquinas’s theology. And so, he calls for a more subtle criticism from the Eastern branch of Christianity, because there is more continuity than they give credit for in the West.[4]

 

Yes, there are differences and many of them are important, but both the East and the West can learn from one another respectfully and in humility. My journey while reflecting on the divine essence and energies distinction, even though I’m unsure whether I affirm it entirely, has nevertheless helped me towards a deeper relationship with God.

 

Further Reading:

 

Gregory Palamas
Essence and Energies Distinction
Divine Essence and Divine Energies

*As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases, at no extra cost to you.



[1] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way, 1.2.2011 edition. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2011), 130.

[2] Horton, The Christian Faith, 131.

[3] Fr. Aidan Kappes, “The Essence/Energies Distinction and the Myth of Byzantine Illogic,” Eclectic Orthodoxy, 2016, https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2016/06/27/the-essenceenergies-distinction-and-the-myth-of-byzantine-illogic/.

[4] The Essence-Energies Distinction: A Protestant Reflection, 2022.

2 Comments


Guest
Jan 22

This discussion brought questions about the Trinity to my mind. I realise that I probably assosiate God the Spirit with "energies" because of the manifestation of his work in us.

Like
Replying to

Thank you for you comment. I can see why one might assosiate God the Spirit with the "energies," although as I understand it, that would disfigure the core doctrine of the Trinity. Even so, the Holy Spirit certainly is also in the energies but is also very much part of the essence of the Godhead's essence. It's a facinating yet challenging topic. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Like
bottom of page