The Divine Energies, Divine Simplicity And Reformed Orthodoxy

Directed Study

Dr. Michael Horton

05 / 28 / 10

In this paper I will give a summary of various approaches to the Doctrine of God from the early and late (or High) periods of Reformed theology.  Specifically, I will be looking at the Reformed orthodox doctrine of Divine Simplicity, taking Calvin and Turretin as representative of the orthodox understanding of the doctrine in the early and late periods, respectively.  In the second section of my paper, I will turn to a discussion of the compatibility of the Reformed orthodox doctrine of God with the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of God, looking specifically at two characteristic Eastern beliefs; the distinction between Essence and Energies in God, and the belief that God’s Essence is “beyond being.”  Because these two beliefs are absolutely essential to the Eastern conception of God, the judgment as to whether or not they are compatible with a Reformed orthodox understanding of God will also be a judgment as to the compatibility of the two conceptions of God more broadly.

It will be my contention that the Reformed orthodox doctrine of God is not compatible with the Orthodox doctrine that the Essence of God is beyond being.  Aside from internal theological considerations that make these two doctrines incompatible, there are also general philosophical considerations, namely that the doctrine of God’s Essence as beyond being is untenable and irrational from a Western metaphysical perspective.  Secondly, however, I will contend that the Reformed orthodox doctrine of God is not necessarily incompatible with the Orthodox distinction between the Essence and Energies of God, given a number of qualifications.  While these two conclusions obviously yield the final conclusion that the Reformed and Eastern Orthodox doctrines of God are not compatible in the fullest sense, the acceptance of the Essence-Energies distinction is still important and marks a potential improvement upon more traditional formulations of the doctrine of God in the West.

The Reformed View of the Essence of God

According to Richard Muller, quoting from Cocceius’ Summa Theologica, “God is not known through his essence—but ‘through his effects and his names, by which he wills to reveal his virtues to us.’”[1] This is a consistent theme among the Reformed theologians.  There is a general skepticism about the usefulness or legitimacy of metaphysical speculation apart from divine revelation.  Musculus is representative of this tendency in Reformed thought when he argues that there is a radical distinction or discontinuity between created and uncreated nature.  He states emphatically that there is no analogy whatsoever between God’s nature and the natures of creatures.[2] Because of such a radical discontinuity, it would surely be futile to attempt, as created beings, to penetrate into the depths of the “what-ness” of God’s essence.  It is important to note that when Musculus uses the term “nature” he should be taken to mean “essence.”  Calvin made an explicit distinction between nature and essence in his writings, where he typically used the term nature to mean what can be known about God.[3] Musculus does admit that knowledge of God’s nature can be gained through his works, but such knowledge would still be only analogous, which is just what other Reformed writers, including Calvin, say concerning the essence.

Because of this view of the ultimate incomprehensibility of the divine essence, nearly all Reformed systematics texts make use of the distinction between essence and attributes.  God’s “attributes” are properties that can be applied to him, including eternity, immensity, spirituality, omnipotence, loving-kindness, holiness, and so on.  A number of distinctions were proposed by different writers in different periods in an attempt to classify the attributes, one of which is the distinction between communicable and incommunicable.  In the early stages of orthodoxy, this distinction was not universally accepted,[4] however by the high orthodox period it had become the most common distinction, and was argued for by Turretin in his Institutes of Elentic Theology, effectively sealing its fate as all but dogmatic for Reformed theology.[5] The precise definition of this distinction and its relationship to the Orthodox distinction between essence and energies will be taken up in the next section.

One of the incommunicable attributes that emerged as primary among Reformed discussions of the attributes was unity.  To say that God possessed the attribute of unity was to say that God possessed absolute numerical identity of essence.[6] That is to say, there is only one being or essence that is God.  This has obvious implications for the doctrine of the Trinity, which explains why it became prominent in discussions.  However, unity for the Reformed orthodox actually transcends mere numerical identity by denying even the possibility of another God.[7] In this way, unity actually becomes a kind of representative attribute of all that makes God to be God.  It stands for his absolute uniqueness, and therefore also for his greatness and glory.  The God of the Bible reveals himself, after all, as the one and only God.

An obvious corollary of unity, and an attribute that most Reformed orthodox theologies saw as following directly from it, is simplicity.  If God is in an ultimate and absolute sense one, then it follows that he cannot be more than one.  This seems perfectly obvious, and taken by itself is merely a tautology, but there arises a problem:  If God is an absolute unity, in what sense can he posses multiple attributes?  Unity itself does not answer this question, for God could potentially be a single composite thing.  The attribute of simplicity is the corrective to this.  Simplicity is, at its most basic level, merely the denial of composition within God.  In most Reformed orthodox theologies, it was actually treated as part of a triad made up of simplicity, spirituality, and invisibility, which are “so related, indeed, that they imply each other and, at times, demand virtually the same definition.”[8] Muller goes on, “[Simplicity], for example, indicates non-composite existence and indivisibility – which is precisely the characteristic of spiritual as opposed to material existence – and spiritual things are, by definition, invisible.”  Thus, if God is spiritual and invisible, which none deny, then he must be simple.

Muller and others argue that simplicity is at its core nothing more than a denial of composition within God.  It is not primarily an abstract philosophical idea, nor does it obliterate all distinctions within God.  This is extremely important, for the absence of all distinctions within God would effectively refute the doctrine of the Trinity, since the Persons must be genuinely distinct.  In reality, the Reformed orthodox theologians saw simplicity as necessary for rightly understanding the Trinity, since to deny simplicity would be to accept composition, which would lead to Tri-theism.  Calvin, specifically, argued that simplicity was necessary for understanding the Trinity, as well as “the unity and consistency of the divine power and justice.”[9]

Now the question arises as to what is to be said about the divine attributes.  If God is simple, in what sense can he have many attributes?  The Reformed orthodox theologians all affirmed in one way or another that all of the attributes are in fact essentially identical with one another, and also each attribute is essentially identical to the essence.  In other words, the attributes are not really distinct, as in the distinction between one thing and another thing (for God is not composed of many things).  Again, it would be a mistake to conclude from this that there are no distinctions in God whatsoever.  Thus the question becomes what kind of distinction exists between the attributes?

In addition to real distinctions, the Reformed orthodox also recognized three other kinds of distinction; formal, virtual or eminent, and rational.  These three kinds of distinctions differ from real distinctions in that they deal with distinctions in things rather than between things.  They are “distinctions that do not separate a particular thing from other things or render the thing composite but which indicate the ways ‘by which a thing is differentiated within itself.’”[10] According to Muller, a formal distinction is one that “belongs to the primary actuality of a substance or essence” whereas a virtual or eminent distinction “identifies a quality belonging not to the primary actuality of a thing but to its potency or power.”[11] Yet a further division can be made between virtual and eminent, such that virtual refers to “an ad extra exercise of power” and eminent refers to “an ad intra causal foundation.”  Finally, a rational distinction is one that, “when it assumes a foundation in the thing, is an ideational distinction (nonetheless genuine) that, unlike the formal, eminent, and virtual distinctions, does not specify the nature of its foundation.”

Muller identifies three distinct answers proposed by different Reformed orthodox writers.[12] The first is that the attributes are rationally distinct ad extra.  The second is that the attributes are distinct ad intra, either virtually or eminently.  The third view, which is a slight variant on the second (and the position held by Turretin), is that the attributes are both eminently distinct ad intra, and also formally distinct ad extra.[13] Within this diversity of opinion, however, there is much unity.  All the Reformed orthodox agreed that the divine essence was simple, but that the attributes were in some sense genuinely distinct.  Also, all agreed that the “operations” or “effects” of the attributes in creation were really distinct.  In the end, the majority view of the orthodox was the second view, namely that the attributes possess “an essential identity with an eminent or virtual distinction intrinsic to the divine essence, reflected in the distinction of attributes in their operation ad extra.”[14]

The Orthodox View of God

And the Problem with the View that God’s Essence is Beyond Being

According to the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of God, there is a distinction between God’s essence and his energies.  The essence of God is so transcendent and unknowable that it is actually beyond the concept of being (or existence) itself.  All that we predicate of God, we necessarily predicate of the energies.  The energies (or “things around God”, highlighting their relationship to the essence) are God, but they are not his essence.  They are God as he manifests himself to his creation.  When we speak of God, experience God, or worship God, we are always speaking of, experiencing or worshiping the energies.

There is a serious problem with this view of God.  To say that God is “beyond being” is to say that God neither exists nor not exists, because we cannot predicate anything at all about the essence.  We cannot predicate existence, but nor can we predicate non-existence.  In order to accept such a statement, however, we must affirm an outright contradiction.  By the law of non-contradiction, certainly a non-negotiable foundation of logic, to exist is necessarily to not not exist.  Conversely, to not exist is to not exist!  There is no tertium quid between existence and non-existence.  To deny one is necessarily to affirm the other, you cannot deny both at the same time.

The Orthodox would counter that their understanding of the essence as “beyond being” is really just a safeguard for the utter unknowability of the essence.[15] But here we run into yet another problem.  To say that we cannot know anything about the essence of God is in fact to affirm a proposition about the essence of God.  We do know something about the essence, namely that it is unknowable.  We could even say that we know something about the properties or relations had by the essence, because it is (apparently) a characteristic of the essence that it cannot possibly be known, in any respect whatsoever, by finite human creatures.  For these reasons, then, I believe that the Reformed ought not to adopt the Orthodox doctrine of God’s essence as “beyond being.”[16]

The Compatibility of the Reformed and Eastern Doctrines of God

In a previous paper I explored the arguments given by David Bradshaw, an Eastern Orthodox Philosopher, against a certain conception of divine simplicity called “Absolute Divine Simplicity” (ADS).  According to this argument, if God’s attributes are identical to his essence, his attributes could not be different or else his essence would be different.  However, this poses a serious problem for divine freedom, because it means that for God to be able to will differently (to choose not to create, for example), he would have to be different.

I would like to briefly propose a response to this argument that does not require altering the Reformed view in any way.  According to the Reformed orthodox view sketched above, there is genuine distinction within God, but not real distinction.  Thus God remains simple within himself even while the effects of his attributes outside of himself are manifold and really distinct.  Now imagine two possible worlds, one (the actual world) in which God ordains Babylon to destroy Judah and carry the Jews into exile, and another (hypothetical world) in which God chooses instead to ordain Egypt to do the same job.  Imagine that we can stand outside of space and time and view these two worlds next to each other.  Imagine also that we can turn and “view” the two “Gods” of each world.  What would we see?  According to the Reformed view, the ad extra operations or effects of the divine attributes can be really distinct without there being any real distinction in God.  Thus whatever real distinctions we may observe between the different effects of God’s attributes in the created world, there is no corresponding real difference within God’s essence (because there are not real distinctions in the essence at all).  This means that, hypothetically, no matter what effects are produced in creation by God’s attributes, the essence never changes.  To answer the question I raised, then, the two “Gods” of our two possible worlds would look, ad intra, exactly the same, even though there are real differences between the effects produced in each world.  Thus it would not follow, on this view, that were God to choose not to create, he would be really different (although this argument does leave open the possibility that God’s attributes would be eminently or virtually different).

However, a potential problem is still left unresolved.  According to Muller, one of the primary meanings of the attribute of simplicity is that it suggests that God cannot be lacking in any of his essential properties and still be God.  God cannot lack the property (or attribute) of goodness, for example, and still be God.  What do we do, then, with the attribute of creator?  If being creator is an essential attribute of God, because all of his attributes are essential, then it would seem that the argument proves that God cannot not be a creator without ceasing to be God.  This obviously carries the implication that God is not actually free to choose not to create.

Here it may be possible for the essence-energies distinction to be of use to the Reformed.  According to my dialogues with Eastern Orthodox thinkers, I have learned that the East believes that in some sense there exists a single divine energy that is God.[17] This energy is the energy of the essence, the energy had by all three Persons of the Trinity.  It is a Person that must particularize this energy in a specific way.  So, for example, when God chooses to create he particularizes the one divine energy such that it becomes what we might call a “creative” energy.  Further, this single energy relates to all of the various particularizations of energies (the energy of goodness, the energy of holiness, etc.) in the way that an Aristotelian universal relates to each of its particulars (i.e. the universal red is fully present in each particular red thing, and all red things possess essential unity with respect to their redness).

Given such a view, it is difficult not to see striking parallels to the Reformed view I have outlines above (or even to the Western view in general).  I do not know what a knowledgeable Eastern Orthodox theologian would say, so I am forced to speculate, but it seems to me that the idea of a single energy that is the essential unity of all of the manifold particularizations of energies is almost identical to the idea of an essence that is the essential unity of all the manifold attributes.  Further, the energies can be said to be “essentially identical” in the sense that God is fully present in each of them, just as the attributes, in the West, are said to be essentially identical.[18]

While the divine energy (or energies) are not beyond being and are therefore capable of being known by us, they remain far beyond us, for they are uncreated and infinite (since they are God, they could not possibly be created or finite).   Thus they are in some sense incomprehensible.  Once again, this is just what the West has said about the essence of God.[19]

So is it the case that East and West have been saying the same thing all this time, but using different language?  Unfortunately, no, it is not that simple.  For example, the East can say without reservation that God can in fact be different than he is, as we comprehend him (or as he manifests himself to us).  In other words, if God had chosen not to create, on the Eastern view, it is not his essence that would be different, but merely his energy.  His essence remains untouched in the realm of beyond being.  Thus, in a sense, we might say that the East is simply able to bite the bullet in a way that West cannot (or, perhaps more appropriately, the East is able to avoiding biting any bullets in the first place).  The East does not need to make any judgments about whether or not God’s essence would or could be different than it is, because they cannot make any statements regarding the essence, period.

What options, then, are left open to the West, and specifically the Reformed?  Well, first, we can attempt to accept the proposition that God’s essence is beyond being.  However, given my critiques of this position, I think it would be very difficult to do so.  The only way that we could affirm such a proposition is if we can find explicit Scriptural support for it.  If a God who is beyond being revealed (via his energies in creation) that he is beyond being and that we cannot know anything about him other than the fact that he is unknowable, that would be acceptable.  However, I remain highly skeptical about this option for two reasons.  First, it is not likely that such an explicit case can be made from Scripture.  Second, even if it could, there is a serious problem lurking here, namely that we would have absolutely no way of knowing the God who is supposedly revealing himself to us is actually anything remotely like what he says he is.  The Orthodox position rejects even analogous knowledge of God’s essence, so there is literally a complete and impenetrable wall between us and God as he is in himself.  We can have absolutely no confidence that God’s energies are anything like his essence.[20] This is a scary thought, especially considering how closely the Reformed orthodox theologians tied the doctrine of simplicity to the believer’s comfort and trust in God.[21]

The second option is simply the reverse of the first, namely to adapt the language of energies to the Reformed conception of essence and attributes.  My own suggestion would include a unique take on the communicable-incommunicable distinction.[22] On this proposed view, the communicable attributes refer specifically to the energies.  Goodness, power, holiness, and all the other attributes that God is said to be able to communicate to creatures in a limited way would be understood as God’s energies.  We would have direct, univocal knowledge of the energies; however the energies themselves would only be analogies of the same properties as they are within the essence.  Thus while goodness can be predicated both of the energy and the essence, it is predicated univocally of the one and analogously of the other.  The strength of this suggestion, I believe, lies in the fact that it gives a much clearer explanation of just how it is that God can communicate attributes to us without also communicating his very essence to us (which is impossible).  Turretin makes a distinction between two kinds of communication in order to resolve this problem; essential communication and communication by way of “resemblance or analogy.”[23] But it remains unclear just how it is that an attribute of God, which is said to be essentially identical to the essence itself, can be “analogically” communicated.  By making a distinction between the essence and the energies we can resolve this ambiguity.  To make my case even stronger, I would also point out that making use of the notion of energies also provides an explanation for how it can be the case that God’s attributes can be said to have real distinctions in their ad extra effects (because the energies are really distinct).

The incommunicable attributes, then, would refer only to the essence and have no corresponding energy, and therefore would only be known analogically and not univocally.  This would include simplicity, immutability, eternity, immensity, and so on.  It is also possible that this distinction between incommunicable and communicable as applied to the essence-energies distinction may in fact be closer to the theology of the Cappadocians.[24]


By way of conclusion, then, I believe I have shown that the Reformed and Eastern Orthodox doctrines of God are not in general compatible with one another.  The Orthodox view of God’s essence as being beyond being is not only philosophically and biblically untenable, but even the use and application of the doctrine of the divine energies in Orthodox theology goes well beyond what can be supported by Reformed thinking.  I hope I have also shown, however, that adopting the terminology and concept of energies in a more limited sense (perhaps something closer to the original Cappadocian sense) is not only possible but in fact preferable as a compliment to the teaching of Reformed orthodoxy.

[1] Muller, PRRD, vol. 3, p. 165.

[2] Ibid., p. 209.

[3] Ibid., p. 210.

[4] Ibid., p. 217.  Zanchi argues that the distinction is untenable because none of the attributes are communicable to creatures.

[5] Ibid., p. 225.

[6] Ibid., p. 242.

[7] Ibid., p. 245.

[8] Ibid., p. 271.

[9] Ibid., p. 274.

[10] Ibid., p. 286.

[11] Ibid., p. 287.

[12] Ibid., pp. 289-297.

[13] Ibid., p 297.  Muller notes that La Blanc may actually go so far as to argue a formal distinction ad intra.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Admittedly this response is partly speculation on my part, but it is based upon many conversations with Eastern Orthodox friends.  The claim that “God’s essence is unknowable” is definitely a statement that the Orthodox would affirm, however, and so the point I go on to make is still a good one, it seems to me.

[16] It is interesting to note, however, that according to Muller (who is in turn summarizing the writings of the Reformed orthodox) being itself is thought to be beyond all categories and distinctions, in the sense that it encompasses all categories within itself.  I wonder if there is not in fact some overlap here between this understanding of being and the Eastern view of God as “beyond being.”  It seems to me, at least from my own limited perspective and possible lack of understanding, that this notion of being itself as beyond all categories of thought would service the ambition behind the Eastern doctrine just as well without falling into illogical absurdities (such as accepting an outright contradiction).

[17] According  to my Eastern Orthodox friend, Michael Garten, the East takes this view from St. Maximus the Confessor.  Much (if not all) of the summary that follows, however, I have taken from discussions with Michael, and have not read Maximus on this subject myself.

[18] Again, this statement was affirmed by my friend Michael Garten, who does not claim to be an expert in Eastern theology nor a representative of the Eastern churches.

[19] That is, the West has always affirmed that the essence of God cannot be known fully by human creatures, and so is rightly said to be incomprehensible.  Thus, my suggestion in this portion of the paper has been that all of the language that the West uses with regard to the “essence” of God is the same as that used by the East to refer to His “energies.”  And as Bradshaw points out, the West did not have a good Latin equivalent for “energies”, which is why the term never caught on as it did in the East.  This means that there is great potential for synthesizing the Eastern and Western views of God.

[20] And, in fact, given the utter difference between God’s essence and being, it is more likely that His essence is nothing like His energies (because, again, there isn’t even an analogy between them).

[21] Ibid., p. 237.

[22] I say that it is unique because I have found no literature that attempts to explicitly answer the various questions and problems I have raised in this paper.  Thus, I must view my own responses to these questions, which I have largely formulated on my own, as unique.

[23] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elentic Theology, vol. 1, p. 190.

[24] I say this because, according to David Bradshaw in Aristotle East and West, the Cappadocian Fathers do not place the incommunicable attributes (of course they would not have used that terminology) among the energies.  St. Maximus Confessor is the first to place attributes such as eternity and simplicity alongside attributes such as goodness and holiness, all under the umbrella of “the things around God.”  Later, of course, Gregory Palamas would come along and subsume the things around God, the Logoi, and the “divine light” under the term “energies”, but a strong case can be made that that is not at all what the original Cappadocian usage of the term actually meant.



Filed under Ancient Thought, Historical Theology, Medieval Thought, Philosophy

4 responses to “The Divine Energies, Divine Simplicity And Reformed Orthodoxy

  1. James

    Quote, “By the law of non-contradiction,” You do realize any logic formula you create is part of creation, unless you believe your logic constructs, a creation of God, are greater than God. In fact, by the use of the law of non-contradiction you have made God a part of creation, governed by the laws of that created order, which makes Him no longer God but just another being or creature.

  2. John

    I see that this is from four years ago. By any chance, have you read Dr. Joseph/Photius Farrell’s [Oxon.] ‘God, History, and Dialectic’ ? Much of what you talk about (esp. the ‘simpliciter’ argument) is dealt with quite extensively in his work.

  3. Pingback: I'm trying to figure out why the reformers stuck with the Catholics on some issues and didn't rethink some base assumptions - Reformed Theology

  4. Joo Y Kang

    Are you still pursuing a further degree?

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