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East and West: The Essence and Energies Distinction


“Regarding the divine names as names of the energeiai enables Gregory to achieve a powerful synthesis. He unifies the Trinitarian argument of Athanasius with traditional reflections about the divine names, and more particularly with the apophaticism that these reflections have at their core. For Gregory, the traditional argument for the homoousion is less an inference from commonality of energeia to commonality of ousia than a simple explication of what it means to speak of a being as God. As he explains in one of the passages dealing with the etymology of theotes:

“if our interpretation of the term ‘godhead’ (θεότης) is a true one, and the things

which are seen are said to be beheld (θεατά), and that which beholds them is called

God (θεός), no one of the persons in the Trinity could reasonably be excluded from

such an appellation on the ground of the sense involved in the word. For Scripture

attributes the act of seeing equally to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

In other words, since theos is a name that indicates the divine activity of oversight, and all three persons share this activity, all three are God. Gregory thus couples to the Athanasian argument a general and systematic distinction between the divine energeiai, which are known and can be named, and the divine ousia, which has no name and is known only through the energeiai of which it is the source. This raises the question of what precisely the energeiai are and how we are to understand the contrast between them and the ousia. If the divine energeiai are what we name when we speak of God, then clearly it is inadequate to understand them simply as activities or operations. Nonetheless, this meaning is still widely assumed, and it has been explicitly defended by some Thomistically inclined scholars.42 The advantage it offers from a Thomistic standpoint is that it brings the Cappadocians in line with the doctrine of divine simplicity. If, as Aquinas holds, “everything which is not the divine essence is a creature,” then there is no room for the divine energeiai as realities that are neither identical to the divine essence nor ultimately due to the act of creation. Such a simple binary opposition fails to capture the subtlety of the Cappadocians’ thought. As I have pointed out, for Gregory of Nyssa the divine names are not merely derived from the energeiai but are names of the energeiai. The natural conclusion to draw is that the energeiai are not merely activities but must in some sense be God Himself. There are also other reasons leading to the same conclusion. One is that Gregory does not hesitate to identify God with the Good and the Beautiful, as well as with other divine attributes such as Power and Wisdom. His reasoning anticipates that which will later be used by Augustine to justify divine simplicity: namely, that God cannot possess such attributes by participation, for then He would be dependent on something else for what He essentially is.

Yet how can Gregory say this, when he also holds that the divine nature has no name and that terms such as ‘good’ and ‘wise’ when applied to God indicate the divine energeiai? The only explanation is that the energeiai are not merely activities of God, but must be God Himself under some nameable aspect or form. A third line of A third line of thought pointing to the same conclusion goes back to the argument from unity of energeia to that of ousia. Surely it is obvious that if the divine energeiai are merely God’s activities in the world, then this argument is invalid. In such a case nothing would rule out the possibility that the Father acts in all things through the Son and the Holy Spirit, who yet were created by Him and remain subordinate to Him in essence. We have already noted that such was the view of Eunomius, at least as regards the Son. Eunomius was here following the Origenist tradition. Writing near the beginning of De Principiis, Origen states:

“As regards the power of his works, the Son is in no way whatever separate or different from the Father, nor is his work anything other than the Father’s work, but there is one and the same movement, so to speak, in all they do.” Yet it is well known that Origen denied the full divinity of the Son. Another who held such a view was the fourth-century Origenist, Eusebius of Caesarea. In light of these precedents, for the Cappadocians to have believed that establishing identity of activity in the created realm establishes identity of substance would have been a remarkable blunder. Perhaps that is why Gregory is so careful to explain that he is not inferring from identity of energeia to the equal divinity of the three persons, but is rather “translating,” as it were, a statement about identity of energeia to one about equal divinity.” [Bradshaw, David. Aristotle East And West. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.]


“In opposition to many of the authors in the philosophical tradition, they reject any attempt to understand the creation and ordering of the world as necessary by-products of God’s internal activity. Basil denies that creation took place without deliberate choice or “as the flame is the cause of the brightness.” Gregory of Nyssa likewise attributes creation to the will of God. It is true that Gregory also says that God necessarily wills the good, but this does not in itself exclude contingency, unless one adds (as Gregory does not) that in each case there is only one good.” [Bradshaw, David. Aristotle East And West. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.]


2 comments on “East and West: The Essence and Energies Distinction

  1. Pingback: “When We See Him, We Shall Be Like Him”: Glorification and the Essence/Energies Disrinction | Irish With A Tan

  2. Pingback: “When We See Him, We Shall Be Like Him”: Glorification and the Essence/Energies Distinction | Irish With A Tan

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This entry was posted on September 29, 2015 by in Theology, Triadology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , .
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