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In Orthodox theology, there are three things that follow a person: the person (who), their essence (the what), their energies/activities (what they do). God in Orthodoxy is beyond being and non being in his essence. Meaning it’s not that God doesn’t exist (non being) but his nature is beyond being (existence). Beyond being itself. At least existence that is bound in the same categories of being that we are in. This is counted as a revealed and inspired truth in the Orthodox Church. God as He is in Himself is not describable or in anyway like us.
God’s energies, are being itself and constitute the foundations of reality. While His essence remains beyond. And it is by His energies that we know the divine persons. It’s how they interact with each other and with us. In fact it is how we know all people, by their energies. Their personal use of their essence. In Orthodoxy, God’s energies are not his essence, but they come from it and manifest the inherent power of the essence which is beyond being, in being and as being. So by virtue of existing, having being, we are participating in God. “For in him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
This is important as it glosses the entirety of Orthodox theology. There is only, what is divine, and what is created. If the persons and essence alone were on the category of divine, then there could be no union with or direct participation in God, without being united to the essence. Which would be to cross the Creator/creature distinction. The only other option would be union with a created effect or thing that was analogous, as much as possible to the divine essence. Still there would remain between us and God, a creature. A created thing.
What the doctrine of the divine energies does is, it allows for there to be a third option in the category of divine and uncreated, the divine energies. These are not creatures, they are the manifestations of God in being. The very communion of the Trinity from all eternity. The energies are activities of the persons and they manifest and so completely indwell each divine energy, such that God can be said to be them. God *is* love. God *is* light. What we call His Glory, are His use of the divine nature, and thus his activities, energies. Though not reducible to any one energy. And since God is in each completely, they cannot contradict. Just as if you are partaking in the activity of walking forward, you can’t go backwards at the same time. This also has many implications for Orthodox theology, such as the relation between wrath and love.
My focus here however is on what this means for human salvation. It means that we can become what God is in His energies and still remain creatures. Since 1) God is the ultimate source of the energies which we participate in and 2) We are not partaking of the essence. However these energies are none the less divine. And a such, when we partake of the ones that are not natural to us, or that far improve what is, we are being divinised, glorified, deified. It is by virtue of these very same energies, that God exists in being as God. And we are being transformed by and made to partake in those very same energies. This brings light various scriptures:
“Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires (2 Peter 1:4).”
“Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).”
“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).”
“I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 1:18-20).”
Human nature has two aspects, though it is one whole. The soul and body then work together and what affects one part of it, affects the other. When the Holy Spirit/God’s grace is present in our souls and we walk according to the Spirit, being filled by Him, we sanctify and hallow our bodies as well as our souls. Just as when the Spirit filled the temple with God’s Glory (his divine energies) the temple itself became sacred. Or when God appeared to Moses by the burning bush, the ground was sacred. So too, our bodies being the temple of the Holy Spirit are sanctified and participate in the divine energies, as we grow in virtue and Christ likeness. This is a part of what is behind the Orthodox understanding of veneration and even relics (2 Kings 13:21). Even when death comes, God will not leave his temple in ruins forever. As the Nicene Creed says “We look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
“When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai. When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. But whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord.”
Matthew 17:1-8“And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
2 Corinthians 3:12-18 “Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
Hymn of the Feast – Kontakion
“On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God,
And Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;
So that when they would behold You crucified,
They would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,
And would proclaim to the world,
That You are truly the Effulgence of the Father.”
These divine energies aren’t impersonal powers. There are the personal manifestations of the Trinity. Their very communion, which we are called to partake in. That’s why eternal life is to “know ” God. This is more than mere intellectual information. The word “know” conotates intimacy, union. The same word in the Bible used to describe the intimacy of a husband and wife. It is no accident that the Church is called the Bride of Christ. And that marriage, where two become one flesh, is a created picture of an uncreated Trinitarian reality of union and rapture that is beyond description. That we are called to partake in. To be one with their divine energies. Any other union, would either be in name only, by association or by similitude in union with a created phenomena meant to imitate the divine life.
“Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent (John 17:3).”
“I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world (John 17:22-24).”
It is in light of this unbelievable kindness from God, that the doctrine of Theosis/Deification, has been expressed by various saints in lofty terms and also misunderstood.
“If the Word became a man, It was so men may become gods.” -Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (130 – 202) Against Heresies, bk. 5
“The Word was made flesh in order that we might be made gods. … Just as the Lord, putting on the body, became a man, so also we men are both deified through his flesh, and henceforth inherit everlasting life.” – Athanasius, Against the Aryans, 1.39, 3.34.
To make human beings gods,” Augustine said, “He was made man who was God” (sermon 192.1.1). “But he himself that justifies also deifies, for by justifying he makes sons of God. ‘For he has given them power to become the sons of God’ (John 1:12). If then we have been made sons of god, we have also been made gods.” Augustine of Hippo (354–430), On the Psalms, 50.2.
So too, the distinction between essence and energies is a long standing one. Even before Gregory Palamas came along in the 13 Century and more or less fine tuned what had long been held, and then later dogmatised by the Orthodox Church. So I’ll end this post by having some quotes from the Church Fathers, and then a page from the Triads by Gregory Palamas, and one from David Bradshaw’s book, Aristotle East and West. These will highlight both the essence and energies distinction as well as some of their key theological and philosophical implications. Such as the nature of the vision of God that we will experience in eternity and whether God had to create or not.
“Is it not ridiculous to say that the creative power is an essence, and similarly, that providence is an essence, and foreknowledge, simply taking every energy as essence?” Basil the Great, Contra Eunomius, I.8, PG 29, 528B
“The energies are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His energies, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His energies come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach.” Basil the Great, Epistle 234
“And if we may reckon that the Cause of our existence did not come to the creation of man out of necessity but by benevolent choice, once more we say that we have seen God in this way too, arriving at an understanding of his goodness, not of his being…He who is by nature invisible becomes visible in his operations, being seen in certain cases by the properties he possesses.” Gregory of Nyssa, Homily on the Beatitudes, VI.
“Essence and energy are not identical.” Cyril of Alexandria Thesaurus 18, PG 75:312c
“The man divinized by grace will be everything that God is, apart from identity of essence.” Maximus the Confessor Ad Thalassium 22, PG 90:320a
“But He Who is beyond every name is not identical with what He is named; for the essence and energy of God are not identical.” Gregory Palamas Triads, p. 97
The Triads by Gregory Palamas
Aristotle East and West by David Bradshaw