The Doctrine Of The Divine Energies

DR625-2 (Directed Study)

Dr. Michael Horton

12 / 18 / 09


In this paper I will examine the doctrine of the divine energies as developed by the early and later Eastern (Greek) Church Fathers.  Simply put, the divine energies are manifestations of God in the created world.  They are truly God Himself, but they are not His essence.  They are the ways in which God makes Himself known to us as created beings.  They would include concepts such as glory, power, mercy, and loving-kindness, as well as eternity and even simplicity.  All of these names or terms that we ascribe to God do not describe His essence (God as He is in Himself), but rather describe his manifold energies.  His essence remains utterly unknowable and beyond all human ability to grasp it.  This distinction between the essence and energies of God became extremely important in the later development of the Eastern (or Byzantine) Christian tradition, especially with regard to the doctrine of theosis or deification.  So important is this distinction to all of Eastern theology that modern scholars are beginning to recognize that it is one of the most important theological differences (if not the most important) that divides East and West.

This paper will be divided into two main sections.  In the first section I will briefly trace the history and development of the use of the Greek term energeia (activity, actuality, or energy), beginning with Aristotle, moving quickly through Saint Paul to the Cappadocian Fathers, and finally considering Maximus Confessor and Gregory Palamas.  I will primarily rely upon David Bradshaw’s book, Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christeddom, along with several of his papers and journal articles, to guide us through this first section.  In the second section, I will deal with several claims made against Western theology (specifically against Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas) by both Bradshaw, as well as Joseph Farrell in his book, Free Choice in Saint Maximus the Confessor.  Both authors regard the error of Augustine and Aquinas to be the same, namely that of adopting a concept of God known as “Absolute Divine Simplicity” (ADS).  According to ADS, God is identical with His essence.  It follows that each of His attributes, such as His will, is equally identical with His essence.  But this poses a serious problem to traditional Christian theology regarding the doctrine of God.  On this tradition God has been thought of as free, for example, in the sense that God was free, before His act of creation, to choose not to create.  This means that God could have willed differently than He in fact did.  If, however, God’s will is identical to His essence, then it would seem to follow that for God to will differently, He must actually be different.  If, on the other hand, we wish to affirm that God’s essence is necessary, then we must say that His will is necessary, and thus He cannot truly be free.  Both Bradshaw and Farrell see the Eastern distinction between essence and energies as the best response to this problem, and others like it.  In this regard, I will come down on the side of the East in support of the essence-energies distinction.

However, there is another significant tension in Western theology that Bradshaw and Farrell believe can only be resolved by the essence-energies distinction, namely the tension between man’s free will and the sovereignty of God.  Both Bradshaw and Farrell argue that because the West lacked a robust doctrine of the divine energies, they lacked the conceptual tools necessary to resolve this tension, which lead to a view of the interrelationship between God and man that was rather like a pie chart.  On this “pie chart” model, the more God does, the less man does, and vice versa.  This, according to Bradshaw and Farrell, is what lead to the Pelagian controversy and Augistine’s “overreaction” in the form of double Predestination.  This tension was never resolved, and carried over into the Protestant Reformation in the form of Calvinism versus Arminianism.  The Eastern doctrine of the divine energies, on the other hand, allows for a view of synergy in which both God and man can be said to perform the same act, without one doing damage to the other.  Here I will disagree with both Bradshaw and Farrell, arguing that the essence-energies distinction should not be seen as a response to Augustinian-Calvinistic Predestinarian theology, but rather should be viewed as the best way of explaining the Augustinian-Calvinistic doctrine.  So much for introductory comments, now we move to the history of energeia.

Energeia in Aristotle

According to Bradshaw, Aristotle coined the term energeia.[1] Though energeia could mean simply “activity,” Aristotle uses it primarily in the sense of “actuality” in contrast to “potentiality.”  More specifically, he contrasts energeia with kenesis (motion).[2] An activity that involves motion is one that moves toward an end.  Aristotle’s example is that of building a house.  Energeia on the other hand is an activity that is its own end.  His example is sight (the object of the act of seeing is to see).  In order to distinguish between these two types of activity, Aristotle applies what Bradshaw calls the “tense test.”[3] At every point during the activity of seeing, it can be said that one “has seen.”  However, it cannot be said at just any point during the activity of building a house that one has “built a house.”

Aristotle’s most famous application of energeia is to his concept of the Prime Mover.  According to Metaphysics xii.6, the Prime Mover is a being whose very substance (or essence) is energeia.  Bradshaw explains Aristotle’s motivation for positing such a being,

First, since the Prime Mover is posited to explain motion it cannot itself be subject to motion, and thus it has no potentiality to change or be acted upon.  Second, because it must be eternally and unchangingly active it can have no unrealized capacities to act; everything it can do it already does, all at once and as a whole.[4]

According to Bradshaw, when Aristotle describes the activity of the Prime Mover as “thought [that] is a thinking of thinking,” he means not that the Prime Mover thinks only about himself, in some narcissistic fashion, but rather that the Prime Mover thinks all possible intelligible content at once as a whole.  Given Aristotle’s identification in other places of thought with its object, it is also true that the Prime Mover is all possible intelligible content.  From this, an interesting understanding of energeia follows,

Thus one could equally say that the Prime Mover is present in all things, imparting—or rather, constituting—their intelligible structure, and thus their being.  In light of all this, when we say that the Prime Mover is pure energeia, how ought we to translate that term?  Activity?  Actuality?  Plainly the answer is both—and therefore neither.  It seems to me that the closest we can come in English is to say that it is pure energy.  Specifically, I have in mind the sense given in the American Heritage Dictionary as “power exercised with vigor and determination,” and illustrated with the phrase, “devote one’s energies to a worthy cause.”  But of course no illustration drawn from ordinary objects will be adequate to the notion of a being that is pure energy, an energy that constitutes the being of other things.[5]

In the centuries following Aristotle, this use of energeia fell out of favor.  However it remained commonplace for philosophers of various stripes to refer to the energeia of the gods.  Philo of Alexandria, the prominent Hellenistic Jew of the first century B.C., makes frequent use of energeia in reference to God’s creative power.  He also draws a strict distinction between God’s essence, which is unknown to man, and God’s Powers, through which He acts in the world and can be known.  This will obviously become important later.

Energeia in Paul

The Apostle Paul uses the term energeia frequently, but two passages in particular are of primary importance for us.  In Colossians 1:29, Paul says, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy (energeia) that he powerfully works (energoumenen) within me.”[6] And in Philippians 2:12b-13 Paul says, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  These passages, according to Bradshaw, illustrate the paradox of synergy.[7] It is both God’s energy and man’s energy at work in the same act.  Both God and man can be said to be doing the act, and yet neither negates the other.  It is man who works, and it is God who works.  Bradshaw also draws the following conclusion,

There is implicit in these passages a belief in the possibility of a personal union with God that is complete and unreserved, yet also free and self-aware.  St. Paul thus takes a large step toward articulating a goal that will become increasingly prominent among both pagans and Christians in late antiquity:  that of participating in the divine energeiai.[8]

Energeia in the Cappadocian Fathers

For the Cappadocian Fathers, the development of a robust understanding of the divine energies occurred on two fronts; First, in their exegesis of Scripture (specifically Moses’ encounters with the divine glory in the Old Testament), and second, in the Trinitarian controversy with Eunomius.

Eunomius was a neo-Arian deacon, and later a bishop, in Cyzicus.  His position differed from Arius’ in details and emphasis, but in essentials it was the same.  Bradshaw succinctly summarizes his main argument against the deity of the Son this way,

He [Eunomius] asserts that the term which best describes God is agennetos, unbegotten.  Because God is simple, “the unbegotten” must be not merely a part of Him or an aspect of His being, but His very essence.  Obviously such an ousia cannot be shared with another through begetting; hence the Son, who is expressly referred to in Scripture as begotten, cannot be God.[9]

Earlier, Athanasius had argued for the deity of the Holy Spirit by pointing out that whatever work (energeia) was attributed to one Person in  Scripture was also attributed to the other two.  He argued that whatever shares the same energeia must also share the same nature (ousia).  Eunomius turns Athanasius’ argument against him by arguing that one of the energeia of the Father is the begetting of the Only-begotten (the Son).  Since this energeia cannot be shared by the Only-begotten, there is a clear difference in energeiai between the two Persons, and thus there must be a difference in ousia.

St. Basil of Caesarea responds to the first argument by distinguishing between what a thing is and how a thing is.  To say that a man is someone’s son is not to say what he is, but how he is (or from whence he comes).  Thus, to say that God is “unbegotten” is merely to say that He is “from nowhere.”  The great insight of the Cappadocians was to argue that terms like “Father” and “Son” referred neither to the ousia of God nor to the energeiai, but rather to “a hypostasis that is distinguished by its mode of existence.”[10]

In response to the second argument, Gregory of Nyssa poses a dilemma.  Eunomius had argued that the Son is begotten by an energeia of the Father.  Thus Gregory sees two options:  Either the energeia is something substantial, in which case it is that and not the Father Himself that begot the Son, or the energeia is not substantial, in which case the Son actually comes from nothing.  Since both options are unacceptable, Gregory can conclude that the internal acts of the Trinity (the begetting of the Son and sending of the Spirit) are not energeiai, and thus Athanasius’ argument can be reaffirmed.  This line of argumentation also leads to the conclusion that whatever energeia can be applied to God (in the form of “God does X”) must be applied equally to all three Persons.  The Cappadocians see no conflict between the unity of the divine energeia and the energeia possessing a “Trinitarian scructure.”[11] Bradshaw quotes Gregory of Nyssa saying, “The same life is wrought in us by the Holy Spirit, and prepared by the Son, and depends on the will of the Father.”

The Cappadocians, Gregory of Nyssa in particular, go well beyond Athanasius in certain respects.  Gregory argues that all names applied to God, such as “just” or “good” or even the name “god” itself, do not refer to God’s essence, but to his energies.[12] One conclusion that can be drawn from this is that energeia, at least for the Cappadocians, does not refer merely to God’s activities or operations.  It refers to his names, as well as qualities that in the West would typically be referred to as His attributes.  What we name when we refer to God Himself are in fact His energies.  Thus the energies must in some sense be God Himself.  But in what sense?  Bradshaw suggests, citing Gregory Nazianzen’s Oration 38, that the energies are God “as He is capable of being apprehended by us.”[13] The energies “manifest the ousia (essence), making it present and active in a dynamic way, but they do not constitute it.”[14] Finally, in response to Eunomius’ charge that applying the distinction between essence and energies to God would result in a form of Plotinian emanationism, the Cappadocians allow that at least some of God’s energeia could possibly have been otherwise.[15]

When it comes to Biblical exegesis, no passage factored more prominently in the Cappadocians’ understanding of energeia than Exodus 33:19-23,

And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”  And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.  Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

The Cappadocians saw here that the distinction between the back and front “parts” of God corresponded to the distinction between the essence and energies of God.[16] They also interpreted the “rock” upon which Moses stood as Christ, for it is only through Christ that we can enter into the divine life (which is participation in the energies).

Energeia in St. Maximus Confessor

Maximus Confessor rose to prominence in the midst of the “monoenergism” and “monothelitism” controversies in the 7th century.  Maximus adopts the distinction between the ousia of God and the “things around God” (which is his preferred term for the energeiai).  Maximus takes the work of the Cappadocians a significant step further by adding to the list of “things around God” such concepts as infinity, simplicity, eternity, immutability, and reality.[17] Since God is beyond being, and therefore beyond the possibility of the intellect to grasp, it follows that whatever we “know” about God we cannot know about His essence.  Since the church affirms the infinity, simplicity, eternity, etc., of God, we must predicate these things not of the essence, but of the “things around” the essence (which Maximus describes as inhabiting an “infinite space” around God, which implies that they are themselves infinite).

The most interesting one of these divine “attributes” that Maximus places in the things around God is simplicity.  Joseph Farrell suggests that there are two senses of “simplicity.”[18] The first is a philosophical or definitional sense, which he describes as a “great metaphysical equals sign”, by which he means that all of God’s attributes (or the “things around God”) are simply identical to His essence.  The second sense is a “symbolic” sense, which Farrell attributes to Maximus.  Farrell describes this symbolic sense as one in which

…the term simplicity functions rather as a symbol of God’s absolute and ineffable unity, and therefore as a means or method whereby to insure that the divine essence, along with each of its energies or logoi, is wholly enhypostasized within each Person without any partition.

That is to say, simplicity here simply means that each Person is fully God, and that each energy or “thing around God” (which Maximus equates with the logoi) is also wholly and fully God.  Farrell goes on to say that Maximus’ understanding of the logoi or energies is thoroughly Neo-Chalcedonian.

The energies are undivided and therefore all equally divine and equally good because they are inseparably connected to the divine essence and because God is wholly, and without partition, in each.  But they are also unconfused, and therefore they are absolutely unique and distinct, and in no way may they be confused or “identified” with either that divine essence or with each other[19].

According to Farrell, Maximus is responding to the question of whether or not humans will have free choice in the eschaton.  Along with Origen, he responds in the affirmative.  However, Origen, according to Farrell, had held to the first sense of divine simplicity, the definitional sense.  Because on this sense there is no genuine multiplicity in God, there would be only one genuinely good choice for humans to make in the eschaton, and so in order to preserve free will Origen was forced to admit the possibility of another Fall, and indeed an infinite cycle of Falls and Redemptions.  Maximus avoids this problem by positing that the “things around God” or the energies are indeed distinct and therefore present genuinely distinct objects for the human will to choose between.  Yet they are unified and are each wholly God.  Bradshaw puts it another way when he says, referring specifically to the logoi, that, “The many logoi are the single divine Logos passed through the prism of God’s creative act and broken into innumerable separate beams.  Their collective meaning is simply the Logos Himself as He is manifested in creation.”  He goes to quote Maximus as saying, “the one Logos is many logoi, and the many logoi are one Logos.”[20] This ineffable conjunction of unity and diversity is at the very heart of the essence-energies distinction.

Energeia in Gregory Palamas

Briefly, there are several major contributions made by Palamas.  According to Bradshaw, what Palamas did was to synthesize the various strands of thought that existed in Eastern theology (the energies, the logoi, the “things around God”, and the divine “light”) and subsume them all under the term energeia.[21] Second, Palamas argues that the energeia are uncreated and eternal, because the essence is eternal, and an essence can never be without its corresponding energeia.  Third, Palamas takes a slightly different approach in arguing for divine simplicity.  He argues that that which acts is simpler than that which is acted upon.  Bradshaw explains, “The rationale for this principle is that when something acquires a new quality by being acted upon the quality comes “from outside”, as it were, and is therefore a new element in relation to the previous being.  Since God only acts and is not acted upon, He is simple in the highest degree.”[22] Thus Palamas provided another understanding of simplicity that remained consistent with Maximus’ use of the term, while giving a better understanding of what it means in relation to God as energeia.

Problems for the Western Understanding of Divine Simplicity

Now that we have seen the development and solidification of the doctrine of the divine energies in the East, we can turn to the Eastern critique of the Western doctrine of God.  As noted at the beginning of this paper, Bradshaw points out that in an Augustinian understanding of divine simplicity, which Aquinas inherits, God’s will is identical to His essence.  It follows from this that for God to will differently He would have to be different.  To me, this objection seems fairly straightforward and almost beyond the possibility of dispute.  The conclusion follows quite freely and naturally from the premises.  Surely it may be possible to nuance the doctrine of divine simplicity to avoid this charge (something similar to what William F. Vallicella does in his article, “Divine Simplicity: A New Defense”), but there is no doubt that the strict, Thomistic version of simplicity cannot stand up to it unaltered.

Another objection leveled against Western theology by both Bradshaw and Farrell, one I wish to spend more time considering, is in regard to synergy and predestination.  Bradshaw alleges that synergy played little to no role in Western theology, primarily because of the influence of Augustine.[23] Specifically, because of Augustine’s conception of absolute divine simplicity, God’s interaction with the world came to be viewed exclusively in terms of efficient causation.  He specifically points to an argument given by Aquinas, that “since God wills all the He wills in a single act—one that is identical to the divine essence—there can be no cause of His willing as He does.  Divine simplicity is thus the ultimate reason why creatures can contribute nothing to their own salvation.”[24]

Initially this examination of Western theology seems a bit myopic.  Because the controversy over the doctrine of the divine energies versus absolute simplicity was so profoundly important in the East, and lead to the establishment of certain dogmas not shared in the West, these things are viewed by modern Eastern theologians as the source of any and all perceived problems with Western theology.  But surely the assertion that synergy had little to nothing to do with Western theology will strike Westerners, especially of a Reformed persuasion, as a rather odd (if not outright ludicrous) claim.  While Aquinas might have been predestinarian, following Augustine, this was not true of the majority of Western theologians in the medieval period.  Man’s free cooperation with grace was a key component of medieval and Roman Catholic soteriology, just as it became for Arminian soteriology later on.  While it may be true that Westerners lacked the precise theological vocabulary for a proper explanation of synergy, it hardly follows that synergy was not present.

The main question that concerns us in conclusion, however, is whether or not the essence-energies distinction is necessarily linked to the sort of synergy that Bradshaw and Farrell assume it to be.  Obviously, as Eastern theologians, they both view the Augustinian-Calvinistic doctrine of predestination negatively.  Moreover, they take it for granted that predestination is inseparably linked to ADS, and that if Westerners were to take their cue from the East and abandon ADS in favor of the essence-energies distinction, Augustinianism/Calvinism would give way to synergy.  I believe, however, the exact opposite to be the case.  It is my contention (pending further research into the writings of the Reformers) that the essence-energies distinction in fact provides Reformed theology with the conceptual tools for explaining what it has always affirmed, namely the tension between God’s sovereignty and freedom in all things, and man’s moral responsibility.  Despite caricatures from all sides of a Reformed theology in which man remains totally passive in all things, merely acted upon by the direct causation of God, Reformed theologians have always sought to stress both “poles” of the antinomy.  They have sought to maintain the absolute power and freedom of God on the one hand, and the genuine willing and activity of man on the other.  The infamous passage of Scripture that speaks directly to this issue is Philippians 2:12b-13, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  As noted earlier in this paper, Bradshaw recognizes that this verse presents what he calls the “paradox” of synergy.  One and the same act is attributed simultaneously to God and to man.  They are both the actors, and the attribution of the act to one does not in any way diminish the activity of the other.

It seems to me that if Bradshaw is willing to admit that this “synergy” is paradoxical, and thus mysterious to us, he has no grounds for rejecting its application to Reformed theology.  To say that this passage, in conjunction with the doctrine of the divine energies, is incompatible with predestination in the Augustinian-Calvinistic sense, is in fact to deny the mystery and favor one “pole” to the exclusion of the other.  To say that God cannot be acting in and through the human person for His own purpose of election is to deny that God is genuinely the actor to the same degree as the human person is.  God’s energy becomes not truly the act being performed, but merely some kind of “boost” to the human energy, which is going to do whatever it wants to do regardless of God’s will.  In opposition to this, Reformed theology fully allows for the mystery to be what it is, and thus provides for the best interpretation of this passage, as well as the best use of the doctrine of the divine energies.  Reformed theology affirms that, for example, in the act(s) of working out one’s own salvation, God is truly exercising His will toward a certain goal and in accordance with certain of His desires, such that we could rightly say that if God did not will this particular act, it would not have taken place.  And yet at the same time, the human person who is said to be working out his own salvation is also truly exercising his will toward a certain end in accordance with his own desires.  The doctrine of the divine energies, then, does not exclude Reformed soteriology, it merely excludes a poor caricature of it, one in which man is said to have no part whatsoever in his acts of willing.  If, however, we affirm a true understanding of Reformed soteriology, one in which there is no “pie chart” that divides a given act between the energy of God and the energy of man, then the Cappadocian and Palamite doctrine of the divine energies (with some obvious modifications in emphasis) provides the best way of explaining the mysterious relationship between the will of God and will of man.

Works Cited

  1. Bradshaw, David.  Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom.  New York, NY: Cambridge, 2004.
  2. Bradshaw, David.  “Christianity East and West: Some Philosophical Differences.”  Available from  Internet; accessed October 2009.
  3. Bradshaw, David.  “The Concept of the Divine Energies.”  Available from  Internet; accessed October 2009.
  4. Bradshaw, David.  “The Divine Glory and the Divine Energies.”  Available from  Internet; accessed October 2009.
  5. Farrell, Jospeh.  Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor. South Canaan, PA:  St. Tikhon’s Seminary, 1989.

[1] Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West, 1.

[2] Ibid., 7-8.

[3] Bradshaw, The Concept of the Divine Energies, 2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 3.

[6] The ESV and NIV are unique among English Bible translations in that they actually translate the first instance of energeia as “energy.”

[7] Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West, 120-122.

[8] Ibid., 123.

[9] Ibid., 156.

[10] Ibid., 159.

[11] Ibid., 160.

[12] Ibid., 161.

[13] Ibid., 167.

[14] Ibid., 170.

[15] Ibid., 171.

[16] Bradshaw, Divine Glory and Divine Energies, 17.

[17] Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West, 190-191.

[18] Farrell, Free Choice in St. Maximus Confessor, 141.

[19] Ibid., emphasis original.

[20] Bradsahw, Christianity East and West, 13.

[21] Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West, 238.

[22] Ibid., 241.

[23] Ibid., 265-266.

[24] Ibid., 254.


Filed under Ancient Thought, Historical Theology, Philosophy

3 responses to “The Doctrine Of The Divine Energies

  1. Nice! I was actually able to follow that a little bit. :)

  2. Interesting paper. It would be fun to discuss this in person sometime. I can tell you put some deep thought and research into this. Thanks, Unc Fred

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