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Reconciling Hesychasm and Scholasticism in the Triads of Gregory Palamas

Daniel J. Castellano


Part I

Part I
1. Introduction
2. Summary of Problems
   2.1 Essence-Energies Distinction
   2.2 Uncreated Light
   2.3 Perceiving the Light through Hesychasm
3. The Triads: Divine Essence and Energies
   3.1 Unoriginate Powers (Energeiai) and Works (Erga)
   3.2 Unoriginate Attributes
   3.3 The Superessential
   3.4 Energies Revealing the Essence through Attributes
   3.5 Energies as Limited in Time
   3.6 Energies as Distinct from Essence
   3.7 Participable Energies
   3.8 Theophanic Energies
Part II
4. The Uncreated Glory
   4.1 The Reality of Theophanic Energies
   4.2 Theophanic Light as Natural Symbol of Divinity
   4.3 Theophanic Light as Deification (Theosis)
5. Deification or Theosis
6. Hesychast Experience
   6.1 Divine Contemplation as Positive Experience
   6.2 Medieval Hesychast Method of Prayer
   6.3 Modern Corrections to Hesychast Practice

1. Introduction

The Greek Orthodox spiritual tradition known as hesychasm, whereby contemplative monks claim to perceive the “uncreated light” revealed at Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, has generally been expounded in terminology that seems plainly incompatible with the concepts of Latin Scholasticism. Three major points of incongruity with the West are: (1) a real distinction between the Divine Essence and Divine Energies; (2) the notion of an “uncreated light” that is really distinct from God; and (3) the claim that it is possible to “see” this divine light through contemplative practices here on earth.

These points were controversially disputed among the Orthodox during the fourteenth century, most famously between Gregory Palamas (c. 1296-1359), a hesychast monk of Mt. Athos, and Barlaam of Seminara (c. 1290-1348), a Calabrian monk influenced by Latin Scholasticism.[1] In the course of these controversies, Palamas was compelled to clarify the idea of hesychasm, especially in defending it from the charge of pretending to attain heavenly visions by human effort.

The disputed issues were resolved in a series of councils at Constantinople in 1341-1351, regarded by many Orthodox as having ecumenical status. These councils upheld the Palamist doctrines, and subsequent patriarchs of Constantinople aggressively promoted hesychasm as a condition of communion, even in other Orthodox patriarchates. Gregory Palamas was canonized as a saint shortly after his death, and, as in the case of Photius, his real virtues are extolled all the more extravagantly as he is seen as a bulwark against the supposed heresies of the West.

Though the hesychast controversy was undoubtedly aggravated by historical circumstances favorable to anti-Latin zeal, there are legitimate concerns that hesychasm and Latin theology may be incompatible, which is a serious problem now that hesychasm has come to be regarded as an indispensable component of Orthodox spiritual tradition. Most neo-Scholastics have taken a negative view toward the possibility of reconciliation, even hinting that hesychasm is a heresy. Some modern Catholic theologians take the opposite view that the Scholastic notion of God as pure Act or the idea of Divine Essence ought to be discarded. This latter option is unavailable to those of us who appreciate how well-founded these Scholastic theses are. Nonetheless, any Christian who apprehends that God is utterly transcendent must recognize that no theological conception can ever pretend to encompass all that God is. In this regard, a study of Palamas will help us develop a due respect for the “superessentiality” of God, and at the same time, hopefully provide the key for harmonizing what seems irreconcilable.

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2. Summary of Problems

2.1 Essence-Energies Distinction

Gregory Palamas defended hesychast beliefs from Barlaam’s accusations in three sets of three treatises written from the 1330s onward, collectively known as the Triads. In the course of this defense, he made frequent appeal to the distinction between the Divine Essence and the Divine Energies. While this way of speaking was no innovation of his, he emphasized the distinction in such a way as to suggest that the Divine Energies were something extraneous to the Divine Essence, as if the operations of God were somehow separable from God Himself. This seems to be utterly contrary to the Scholastic notion of God as actus purus, without any admixture of potentiality, so that all the so-called attributes, faculties and operations of God are identical with the Divine Essence. This teaching, though formulated in Aristotelian concepts, upholds the radically simple Unity of God, so we find it even in Maimonides.[2]

The distinction between Divine Essence and Divine Energies is problematic with respect to Latin theology if it makes a distinction between potency and act in God. It would directly contradict basic monotheism if it went so far as to imply that there is a plurality of elements in God, as though He were “composed” of Essence and Energies. On the other hand, if the Energies merely refer to the actions or works (erga) of God, then even the strict monotheism of Maimonides admits this, but in that case the Energies are not to be identified with God Himself.

The Scholastic notion of God as actus purus derives not only from metaphysical considerations, but also from the monotheistic conviction that there is no defect or deficiency in God. There is no unrealized potentiality in the Divine Essence; anything that God can be, He already is. It does not follow from this that He “does” everything He can do, since the actions of God are extraneous to His Essence, which is all He is.

Against the Orthodox contention that the Latins have uncritically borrowed from pagan philosophy, we may remark:

  1. The Latin Church did not receive Aristotle without modification (e.g., contrast Thomism with Averroism);
  2. The Orthodox Church itself does not shrink from borrowing from pagan philosophy, esp. Plato;
  3. There is no shame in using philosophy that was first developed by pagans, as though Christians were required to reinvent culture from ground zero. In fact, there is no alternative if the Orthodox are unwilling to create their own “Christian philosophy” as the West did with Thomism and Scotism.

Continued objection in the face of these facts would reduce the Orthodox position to claiming that philosophy has nothing to say about theology, yet this is plainly contrary to the implicit belief of the Greek Fathers from Nicaea onward.

Since we are not justified in setting aside Scholastic theology for being philosophical, we should consider whether Palamist theology is compatible with this legitimate Western tradition. In Latin theology, God acts solely by His Essence, not by multiple faculties or elements.[3] Palamas’s essence-energies distinction might well be compatible with this theology, for he does not deny that God’s proper operations (i.e., the Divine Intellect and Will) are indistinguishable from His Essence. Rather, His operations (energies) as manifested in the world are distinct from God Himself. This was the notion of energeia intended by Honorius when he first misunderstood the monotheletic controversy, saying that God has innumerable “energies,” i.e., actions.

To give a concrete example, suppose God miraculously heals a sick person. This act, as manifested in the world—i.e., the process of the person being healed—is distinct from the Divine Essence. If it were otherwise, witnesses of this miracle might claim to have seen the Divine Essence, and we would have some form of idolatry or pantheism.

So the essence-energies distinction is really a distinction between what is God Himself, including His proper operations or acts, and His operations or acts as manifested in the world. It is another attempt to address the difficult question of how the Divine Essence may act upon the world while yet remaining radically distinct from it. The West conceives of God’s proper activity as entirely contained in God, who acts without instrument besides His Essence, and is in virtual contact with His effects, namely the being of His creatures. The East, by contrast, considers that divine activity manifested in the world must be distinct from God, i.e., divine activity extends beyond the Divine Essence as such. Perhaps these views may be harmonized by saying there are two aspects to divine activity—that within God and that as it is manifested in the world, and that these divine operations in the world are not substantial emanations of the Divine Essence.

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2.2 Uncreated Light

The above attempt at harmonization does not account for Palamas’ notion of uncreated light. This is a problem because it seems to clearly posit something that is not God and not created, which would be obviously heretical. Why do the generally scrupulous Orthodox believe such a thing? Again, some subtlety is involved.

Consider the divine act of Creation. That act, as something proper to God, is indistinguishable from the Divine Essence. Yet that act as manifested in the world is distinct from God. The world has not yet been created, so we cannot speak of this act (“the uncreated light”) as being created. We might avoid heresy by noting that this act is not a substance (ousia), since it is distinct from the Divine Essence, and certainly cannot be any part of the world, for the world has not yet been created.

One might object: is it not revealed that the world was created by the Divine Word, and informed by the Holy Spirit stirring the primordial chaos (waters of the deep)? It would seem that Palamas’ doctrine creates an intermediary between the Word and creation, and between the Spirit and creation. Yet Palamas’ “uncreated light” is but a distinct aspect of the same act that is proper to God. It is this aspect of the act that goes “out of God,” to create something “other than God.” If Palamas’ solution seems logically problematic, it is hardly more so than any account of how God creates something other than Himself when His act is activity of Himself, i.e. divine. Truth be told, neither the Scholastic nor the Palamist metaphysical account really “solves” the matter adequately. At best, they indicate or point to an incomprehensible reality. In this sense, the Orthodox are right to claim that philosophy is inadequate to theology, but this does not mean philosophy has nothing to say on the subject.

Creation cannot be conceived as increasing or extending the Divine Essence beyond what it already is, for God’s proper act (i.e., the act of being Himself), is free from imperfection or deficiency. Nor can it be considered as an emanation (literally, “pouring forth”) of the Divine Essence, for that would imply a sort of pantheism or panentheism. Some nebulous modern theologies would have God improve or perfect Himself by creating the world, which is obviously erroneous and heretical. The path to harmonization should not involve compromising true monotheism.

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2.3 Perceiving the Light through Hesychasm

A separate question is whether the monks of Mt. Athos and other hesychasts are actually able to see this “uncreated light” in their mind’s eye or with their physical eyes through contemplation. The monks’ strong conviction that they really do see this light compelled them to advocate Palamism, but Palamist theology does not strictly require that anyone should be able to “see” the light of creation.

Adrian Fortescue, in the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia, asserted that hesychast practices were akin to auto-suggestion. In the lazy-minded manner of liberal ressentiment, it has become fashionable to dismiss this position as bigoted, without offering contrary evidence. Yet it can hardly be denied that the precise physical behaviors prescribed by hesychasts are the same as those used for auto-suggestion. These include: controlled breathing; emptying the mind of external perceptions, discursive thought and volitional evaluations; repeating a brief expression or mantra; bodily stillness; and directing consciousness toward the center of the body. Such similarity gives reasonable cause for suspecting that most hesychast experiences are naturalistic phenomena.

Although modern hesychasts are careful to specify that they do not see the divine light by their own efforts, but only make themselves receptive to God’s freely given grace, the regularity and frequency of this mystical experience calls its authenticity into question. Even saints and apostles did not have so many visions. The fact that the monks see “light” is consistent with auto-suggestive experiences. There is no reason, even assuming a Palamist essence-energies distinction, that the energeia of creation should be manifested as light. The Fiat lux in Genesis takes place after the world’s creation had begun, while the energeia of creation, per Palamas, must be prior to all creation.

While it is not possible to prove that every instance of seeing the “uncreated light” is inauthentic, there are strong probabilistic grounds for denying that hesychasm regularly results in authentic visions. Still, by what the Latins call prudential judgment and the Greeks call oikonomia, the Church generally tolerates devotional beliefs as long as they are not harmful and not asserted as revelation. It would be indiscreet to press the matter too far in either direction, either to say that hesychast experience is self-induced, or to say that it proves the reality of uncreated light. Diversity of opinion should be tolerated in this matter.

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3. The Triads: Divine Essence and Energies

We will explore the questions related to hesychasm in the reverse of the chronological order followed by Gregory Palamas in the Triads.[4] Gregory began with a defense of hesychast practices against Barlaam’s philosophically based accusations of heresy, followed by a discussion of the uncreated light itself, and finally employed the essence-energies distinction to defend the latter doctrine. We are following the reverse order so we may begin with what is theologically fundamental, and then determine to what extent the more practical doctrines are consequent to these. While this has the disadvantage of anticlimax, dealing with the loftiest doctrines first, it seems more consistent with the logical exposition we wish to give.

In the second discourse of the third triad, Palamas argues that the data of Revelation shows that God is not a monadic essence without attributes, but rather He possesses faculties or powers: of knowing, prescience, creating, embracing all things, providence, deification. All of these faculties or powers delineate God’s intersection with the world. They are not extrinsic to the Divine Essence, but subsist in it. (III, ii, 5)

The reality of divine faculties or powers had never been denied by Jewish or Christian theologians, but what is at issue is whether these faculties or powers may be considered distinct from the Divine Essence. Maimonides and the Latin Scholastics held that God acts solely by His Essence, so that all of the supposed divine faculties or attributes refer to His Essence and nothing extrinsic to it. Palamas agrees that these faculties are not extrinsic to the Essence, but denies that this implies that God is a monad. This is an important clarification, since the Jewish and Scholastic exposition of the absolute Unity of the Essence, without division or composition, may be taken to imply a lack of richness in God, who is also Infinite or limitless. Palamas’s theology emphasizes the latter aspect of God, so that there is absolutely nothing lacking in Him. Instead of a structureless monad, the Divine Essence should be seen as something much richer and fuller than all the diversity of the visible world.

Are the divine faculties or powers properties or accidents of the Divine Essence? The Scholastics have answered in the negative, since this would imply imperfection in God. Recall that Aristotle uses the term dynamis or power to refer to potentiality in several different senses. In general, the distinction between potentiality and actuality is between the unrealized capability and the realized existent or operation. Since there is no deficiency in God, it is unseemly to ascribe to Him dynamis or potentia in a sense that is exclusive of actuality or perfection. God is already everything that He can be, as any Abrahamic monotheist will admit, so in that sense there certainly is no potentiality in Him distinct from actuality. Thus the Latin characterization of the Divine Essence as actus purus is sound. Nonetheless, with respect to the world, there are some works that God does and others that He does not do, though He has the power to do those other things. Thus it would seem that there is real power in God distinct from realized actions, without prejudice to the truth that there is no deficiency or existential potentiality in the Divine Essence.

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3.1 Unoriginate Powers (Energeiai) and Works (Erga)

Though the power of God does not do everything it could do, it is unlike the powers or faculties of creatures, in that it is never a mere potentiality or inert (non-working). It is always energetic (i.e., in work) and actual. God’s power seems inactive only from the perspective of temporal creatures. Thus when Palamas mentions that God will not exert prescience at the end, we should not take this to imply that God’s prescience is ever inactive in His eternity. It is likewise with the power of creation ex nihilo, which is exerted only at a specific time from our perspective, but the power is never inactive in the eternal God.

God per se is outside of time, and in Him there is only activity in its fullness. It is only when considering divine power as imminent in creation that we may consider it as sometimes active, and sometimes inert. It is only from a temporal perspective that we may say “God rested” on the seventh day.

Palamas says, “The powers of God are unoriginate, thus it is not true that only the Divine Essence is unoriginate.” Clearly, he does not regard these powers to be identical with the Divine Essence, yet he has also admitted that they are necessarily subsistent in the Divine Essence and inseparable from it. Since the divine powers are substantially of the Divine Essence, Palamas’s statement cannot be taken as having discovered some other substantial thing that is unoriginate besides the Divine Essence.

What are the powers of God? Are they substantial realities, or merely formal distinctions? Does God use one power for knowing and another for creating? The Scholastics (and Maimonides) answer that God does everything by His Essence. The “powers” are not faculties or potentialities, but the actual energetic living activity (energeia) of God. They are multiple in the sense that God performs innumerable works (erga), so that we perceive innumerable divine “workings” or operations (energeiai), as Honorius professed. Yet the sentence “God performs works” is misleading, as it has three terms, when there are only two realities: God-who-acts and the works (erga) that are His effects in the created world. The “working” or energeia of God is inseparable from God Himself.

Palamas repeatedly offers the analogy of the sun and its rays. For the analogy to work, we must take a medieval view that the sun’ is essentially light, and its rays are emanations of the solar essence. This illustrates the sense in which there can be one Essence and many energies in God, where the latter are not substantially distinct from the Essence. It might further illustrate how the energies are a means by which God may in some sense go “outside of Himself,” acting upon the world. Here, however, one must guard against any emanationist theology that would extend the Divine Essence into the world.

Palamas distinguishes between divine powers, which some Fathers have called “natural energies,” and the works (erga) of God. Note that Palamas, in agreement with Scholastic theology, identifies divine power and energy, since there can be no unrealized potential in God. Yet, in keeping with the practice of the Greek Fathers, he refers to these energies in the plural, to correspond with the plurality of definite interior and exterior works (erga) of God. Only the energeiai subsist in the Divine Essence, while the erga are altogether distinct from God, as even Maimonides admits.

It is obvious that the energeiai or divine powers exist from eternity, since they are substantially of the One Divine Essence by which God acts. Yet even some erga may exist outside of the world and time. For example, God’s powers or natural energies of providence and prescience enable Him to foresee and foreplan creation. These works (erga) of foreseeing and foreplanning are distinct from God, since they correspond to the determinate world that God has chosen to create. Yet such “works of providence” (making provisions or plans for the determinate world to be created) and “works of knowing” (foreknowing the determinate creatures that will come to be) must have occurred before the world was created, and therefore outside of time. Thus at least some of God’s works are unoriginate in time. (III, ii, 6)

This does not imply that the works are absolutely unoriginate, for they still have their source in the Divine Essence. The Father alone is the unoriginated origin or principle without principle (arche anarchos).

It might seem that this notion of God contemplating the world before actually creating it implies some sort of potentiality in God. On the contrary, Palamas says there was never a moment when God “began to be moved” toward the contemplation of the world. In fact, his assertion that the energies and even some erga are unoriginate emphasizes the pure actuality of God, in whom nothing is unrealized or incomplete. Although we sometimes speak of the energies as powers or faculties, we should not understand this in the sense of potentialities. (See Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, I, lv)

The purpose of the above example, of course, is to show that there are things other than the Divine Essence that are unoriginate, nullifying one of Barlaam’s objections against “uncreated light.” The argument may be expressed in this syllogism:

(1) God’s providence is unoriginate.
(2) Providence is not the Divine Essence.
∴ The Divine Essence is not alone unoriginate.

If we take “providence” in the sense of a determinate work (ergon), then the second premise certainly holds, but the first premise is established only in the sense of unoriginate in time, not necessarily in the sense of ungenerated or uncreated.

If we take “providence” in the sense of a divine power or energy (energeia), then the first premise holds just as absolutely as for the unoriginate God, since the energy is of the Divine Essence. In this case, however, the second premise can only be understood as denying logical identity, not substantial unity. Palamas himself would argue that Providence is not another substance extrinsic to the Divine Essence, but rather it is an energy of that very essence. Recall that energeia, per Aristotle, who coined the term, is an actualization or perfection of an essence. It is not potential (dynamis), though in the case of God we also describe it as power (dynamis) since there is no prior potential to which we can refer its ability to act, as there is nothing but actuality in the unoriginate God. In either interpretation, it has not yet been established that it is viable to posit an uncreated being that is essentially distinct from God.

Admittedly, Palamas does not always clearly distinguish divine energies from divine works (erga) and divine attributes or virtues. At various times, he describes each of these things as surrounding the Divine Essence, much like rays around the sun. In the present discussion (III, ii, 6), he lists divine foreknowledge, volition, providence, self-contemplation and similar powers as unoriginate “works” (erga) of God. Here he seems to intend “works” in the sense of energeiai, i.e., as pertaining ontologically to God. This would mean the second interpretation of the above syllogism would be more appropriate. Confirming this idea, Palamas goes on to say that each of God’s “works” is a virtue or attribute. As the works are unoriginate, so are the virtues, which are also distinct from the Divine Essence.

Yet we have seen that divine energeia and attributes are distinct from the Divine Essence only by logical identity, not in substance, for they all subsist in the One Divine Essence. The energies and attributes are absolutely unoriginate not as separate beings, but by virtue of subsisting in the absolutely unoriginate Divine Essence. God acts through His Essence and no other instrument, so His energies are as unoriginate as the Divine Essence. The divine virtues or attributes are also proper to the Divine Essence, as Maimonides expounded at length, so they too are unoriginate insofar as the Divine Essence is unoriginate. None of this indicates that there is any unoriginate being outside the Divine Essence.

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3.2 Unoriginate Attributes

By speaking of divine attributes or qualities as though they were really distinct from the Divine Essence, Palamas seems to introduce a substance-accident distinction in God. Yet if God were to have qualities or any other accidents, there would be something in Him that depends on something else for its existence, which is impossible and against the faith. Even in Trinitarian theology, where the Son and Holy Spirit are said to originate in the Father (by begetting and proceeding, respectively), there is no implication that the Son or the Holy Spirit depend on something external to themselves for their being, for the Three Persons all partake of the unoriginate Divine Essence fully and directly. To deny this is to adopt the heresy of subordinationism.

A subordination of accidents in God is no less objectionable than a subordination of persons, for this would imply that there is something in God that is not ontologically absolute, yet God in His fullness is metaphysically necessary. The presence of real accidents in God would introduce dependence and contingency in Him, which is utterly contrary to Abrahamic faith (and sound natural theology for that matter). Accordingly, God’s “qualities,” and “activities” cannot depend on an underlying essence that is different from themselves. Rather, these “qualities” and “activities” are of the Divine Essence itself, and they are plural only with respect to their outward manifestation in created works. (Maimonides, op. cit., I, lii)

Palamas further posits that the existence of God is something unoriginated yet distinct from the Divine Essence. He does not repeat the philosophical error (held by Avicenna, Maimonides, Scotus) that existence is an accident or determination of essence, and therefore ontologically subordinate to essence. On the contrary, he regards existence as something prior to essence, at least in the case of God, for it is the “first existence” upon which all other beings depend. He does not indicate that this existence is necessarily prior even to the Divine Essence, though later we will see how he considers God to be “superessential,” following Pseudo-Dionysius and St. Maximus the Confessor.

Although Maimonides accepted the idea that existence is ordinarily an accident of essence, in the case of God existence is absolute (i.e., not due to any cause), so it is not superadded to the Divine Essence as an accident. In God alone, “existence and essence are perfectly identical.” (Maimonides, I, lvii) St. Thomas made an important correction to Aristotelian ontology, regarding existence as an actualization of essence, not a determination or accident. Thus, ordinarily, essence is mere potentiality in the order of existence; i.e., an essence need not exist. Yet the existence of God is metaphysically necessary, so He is pure act in the order of existence, without any potentiality. In other words, “what God is,” i.e., the Divine Essence, necessarily entails “to be” (esse), so there is no real distinction between the Divine Essence and God who exists. Thus, in Thomist ontology, “the Divine Essence” and the existent God are one and the same. It is important to grasp this in order to forestall the objections Palamas would raise against what he perceived as theological essentialism.

In Thomist ontology, any appeal to God’s existence as an unoriginate thing that is distinct from the Divine Essence would be indicating only a formal distinction. Even in Palamas’s ontology, which apparently admits a real distinction, divine existence is not conceived as something substantially distinct from the Divine Essence. In other words, we still have not shown that there is anything unoriginate that is not God.

Perhaps there is some sense in which the absolutely unoriginate divine attributes or virtues are outside of God, truly erga rather than energeiai. After all, creatures may participate in the divine virtues, albeit imperfectly. Palamas starts with St. Maximus the Confessor’s statement that “existence, life, holiness and virtue are works of God that do not have a beginning in time.”

It is philosophically inexact to regard existence as a “work” of God. Existence is not something you do, but more primitive than action, being inseparable from oneself. Still, existence may be considered a “work” in the sense of an energeia or actualization of essence.

Our virtues, participating in divine virtues (e.g., holiness, immortality), are not identical with divine virtues, since our participation has a beginning in time. Thus even God’s works (erga) with an origin in time may be said to participate in God’s unoriginate virtues. (III, ii, 7) These originate works (erga) may be regarded as God’s operations (energeiai) as manifested in creation. Those in the Scholastic tradition would further emphasize that even the energeiai are plural only with respect to the plurality of erga, not per se, for there can be no plurality of components in the Divine Essence.

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3.3 The Superessential

Gregory Palamas generally objects to speaking of God as an Essence (ousia). In this, he follows the theology of Pseudo-Dionysius (or Denys) the Areopagite (c. 500) and St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662), who commented on Dionysius in his Scholia. The basis for this objection is that ousia is understood to refer to some determinate being, while God transcends all determinations and definitions.

In his commentary on Dionysius, St. Maximus writes: “If ousia (being) comes from einai (to be), but einai delineates the conception of anything passing by (paragoges tinos ennoian hypographei), much less can ousia properly be said of God.” (St. Maximus, Scholia in Migne, Patrologia Graeca, IV, 186-87.) The Greek verb eimi (infinitve: einai) means “come to pass,” i.e., “to be” in Greek is “to happen.” Yet God is not something that happens; rather all that comes to be is because of Him. As the source of all being, He cannot be properly called a Being (ousia). Rather, God surpasses all essences (ousias), for all being comes out of Him. Accordingly, St. Maximus follows Dionysius in calling God “superessential” (hyperousiotes).

Maimonides and the Scholastics recognized that God does not exist in the same sense that creatures exist, for the latter have only a contingent, derivative existence. They “happen” or “come to pass,” while something stronger is intended when we say “God is.” So the use of the term ‘Divine Essence’ to designate God may be appropriate, as long as we understand that for God “to be” is something more absolute than the ordinary sense of the term.

Yet there is a further objection to theological use of the term Essence. A definition is said to be a statement of the essence, and an essence is that reality which corresponds to a definition. Under this formalism, it would seem that an essence must be something definable, yet God transcends all limits, and is therefore indefinable. Thus it is fitting to speak of God ontologically as “superessential,” or, more paradoxically, the “Superessential Essence,” i.e., the undefinable essence, in analogy with the arche anarchos, the principle without principle. In Thomist theology, the inadequacy of the notion of essence is approached from a different angle, by collapsing the distinction between “what God is” (essence) and “God who is” (existence), with the latter understood as transcending all limits, as the faith teaches.

St. Maximus appears to differ on another point from Maimonides and the Latins, who hold that the divine virtues or attributes are merely ways of speaking about the Divine Essence from the perspective of the created world. He instead says that God infinitely transcends these unoriginate virtues. This does not mean that the virtues are some kind of demiurge between God and man. Rather, the Divine Essence is not contained by any virtue or group of virtues. God is not merely holiness, immortality, life, etc., for He is inexhaustible. The virtues are truly of the Divine Essence and not something separable from it, but even heavenly participation in them does not give an exhaustive comprehension of God, for He is absolutely limitless.

Dionysian theology would have God transcend Being as He does the attributes. In this, as in other matters, Pseudo-Dionysius appears to have been influenced by the Neoplatonist Proclus, who taught that the One cannot have a determinate nature if it is the source of all determinate natures. The One produces not only each particular nature, but also their totality, which is Being. Nonetheless, Pseudo-Dionysius only borrows concepts in accord with the Christian notion of God as superlatively transcendent. Unlike the Neoplatonists, he does not see union with God as henosis or the loss of individuality, but instead posits a genuinely incarnational notion of theosis, as we shall later see. His God is not a monad, but an inexhaustible Infinite beyond comparison. With good reason, the Areopagite was an esteemed Patristic authority in both the East and the West, and this authority was not limited to the erroneous belief that he was of the subapostolic generation (which was doubted even by some medieval doctors), but because the writings by which he was known were unmistakably sound.

Following the Dionysian notion that God transcends Being, St. Maximus says God is nothing (oude) of things that are, but He is above all beings (hyper ta onta), as the source and end of all thought. (PG, IV, 189-90) That is to say, God is non-being in that He is not on the same plane as those things we call beings, whether in physical existence or in thought, since He is the source of all existence and even of all concepts. Thus it is misleading to speak of the Essence of God insofar as this implies some definite concept or definite existent.

The theology of the Superessential should not be construed as a merely apophatic construction, defining God in terms of what He is not. Palamas quotes Pseudo-Dionysius: “God possesses the superessential in a superessential manner,” taking this to mean that God is beyond even the transcendence of being, i.e., non-being. (III, iii, 14) Neither ousia nor its negation can define God.

Palamas likewise holds that God transcends all divine energies; indeed He transcends “all else” infinitely many times. No Christian can disagree, but we must make clear that “all else” must means all that is not God. When Latin theologians speak of the Divine Essence, this term designates nothing other than God. It is one thing to say that God transcends Being, but quite paradoxical to suggest He transcends the Divine Being that is Himself. If the Divine Essence denotes God Himself, then He does not transcend it, for that would imply that God can be transcended. If the Divine Essence is not God, then what is it? Palamas himself sometimes slips into usage of the term Essence, though always with the understanding that this Superessential. Likewise, if Latins are to use the term Divine Essence, this should not be construed as somehow determining or limiting God.

For those of us who continue to use the term Divine Essence for facility, this should be understood only as denoting God Himself, for “what God is” is uniquely answered by God Himself. We use the term Essence to emphasize His positive reality, which is a fullness that exceeds any limit defined by any term, including Being (ousia). God is an ousia or “substance” only in that He is not intrinsically dependent on any other being; i.e., He is not an accident.

The notion of God as Superessential might give quarter to the idea that the Divine Energies are something beyond the Essence, but Palamas does not take this route. He consistently regards the Energies as subsisting in the Essence. The Superessentiality of God implies that no enumeration of attributes or energies could exhaustively characterize God, so none of the energies can be simply identified with God. Neither the divine virtues, nor “eternal glory” (to be equated with uncreated light), nor divine life (which may be considered a more generalized energeia) “are simply the Superessential Essence of God, for God transcends them all as Cause.” (III, ii, 7)

This last statement may seem to imply some subordination within God, as though some of His attributes were caused by something more fundamental to His being. Yet Palamas in fact takes the conventional position that the plurality of attributes is only something that we perceive in the created world, and in that sense they are consequent to the Superessential. We say God is life, goodness, etc. only because of the “revelatory energies and power of the Superessential.”

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3.4 Energies Revealing the Essence through Attributes

This notion of energies partially revealing an essence is consistent with how the Greek Fathers viewed natural energy in general. The energy or operation of a thing is what enables a mind to apprehend the essence or nature. Thus energeia may be considered that which manifests or reveals an essence. Divine energeia reveals something of the Superessential, which we apprehend as divine attributes.

We may enlist the analogy of rays of light (energies) revealing something of the sun (essence). It would be wrong to say that a given ray simply is the sun, yet it would also be wrong to say the ray is some separate substance from the sun. The ray is at once the thing seen and that by which we see. Do we see the essence of the sun? Not as such, but by the attribute we call light. There is a sense in which the ray (energy) is identified with the essence (the thing seen) and a sense in which it is identified with the attribute (that by which we see).

Can we say at this point whether this a formal or real distinction between the sun and its rays, between essence and energies? There is certainly no real distinction in the order of essence. The energies are not substantially distinct from the essence, nor are they accidents of the essence. In the case of solar rays, each ray conveys something of the solar essence, but an individual ray is obviously not identical with the solar essence, and this is not a mere formal distinction. Moreover, as a substantial emanation, a ray is able to extend beyond the proper place of the sun, so it is somehow outside the sun while subsisting in its essence.

Yet in the case of God is not admissible that the Divine Essence (or the Superessential) should be conveyed only partially in each energy, for the Essence is indivisible, admitting no quantity. Palamas, aware of the problem, confesses that God subsists entirely in each energy or the attribute it reveals, though He transcends the energy or attribute. For this reason, we rightly name God by each attribute (e.g., when we say, “God is justice,” “God is holiness,” etc.). That God transcends and fully subsists in each energy is not a contradiction, Palamas claims. On the contrary, one is made possible by the other:

For, given the multitude of divine energies, how could God subsist entirely in each without any division at all; and how could each provide Him with a name and manifest him entirely, thanks to indivisible and supernatural simplicity, if He did not transcend all these energies? (III, ii, 7)

It is by reason of God’s transcendence that He can be wholly present in each attribute or energy, without prejudice to His simplicity or unity. The argument may be expressed simply as follows:

(1) If God did not transcend His energies, He could not be manifest in them except by division.
(2) In fact, God is wholly and entirely manifest in each energy.
∴ God must transcend His energies.

This argument does not pretend to show how God’s transcendence enables Him to manifest completely in each energy, but starts by admitting that without such transcendence it would be impossible. The second premise must be accepted as a fact by anyone who admits that there are divine energies and that God is indivisible by (super)nature. Note that the second premise makes the Essence and energies perfectly “coextensive,” unlike the sun rays which convey the solar essence in only partial quantities. Thus when Palamas says that God transcends His energies, this does not contradict the idea that the Essence and energies are coextensive, but rather supposes it.

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3.5 Energies as Limited in Time

Following the language of the Greek Fathers, Palamas asserts that some divine energies have a beginning and end in time. Barlaam is wrong to suppose that anything that has a beginning is created, for all the divine energies are uncreated, yet some of them have a beginning in time. In particular, “beginning and end must be ascribed, if not to the creative power itself, then at least to its activity, that is to say, to its energy as directed toward created things.” (III, ii, 8)

The example in question, however, is not a substantial thing, but an application of divine power to temporal creation. The “activity” of the created power, i.e., “ its energy as directed toward created things,” is neither an essence nor an energy per se, but an aspect or application of an energy from the perspective of the temporal. Palamas tacitly admits that the divine creative power is itself without beginning. Only its activity with respect to the determinate world has a beginning in time. He has not refuted the thesis that every substantial thing with a beginning is created. Nor has he even shown that the energy per se has a beginning in time.

It is erroneous to think of the divine power or faculty of creation lying idle before all ages, only to become active during the Creation, for this would imply potentiality or deficiency in God. Rather, God in His Essence acts timelessly, so His creative power is always active. It is only from the perspective of the created world that His activity has a beginning and end.

Once this distinction is appreciated, we can better evaluate Palamas’ observation that divine prescience has an end but not a beginning, so even this clearly unoriginate energy is not to be identified with the Superessential Essence, which is eternal. We understand that it not the energy or operation of prescience per se that has an end in time, but only its application from the perspective of the creative world. God knows all things in eternity; it is only from our temporal perspective that he has pre-science of anything. So Palamas has only shown that the energies as manifested in creation are distinct from the Divine Essence, not that the energies as such are distinct from the Essence.

Still, the example of divine prescience does show that even something clearly unoriginate may be limited in time, at least insofar as it is manifested in the world (i.e., through the prophets). More generally, the energies of the eternal God may manifest themselves at definite moments or periods in time, and they do not cease to be divine on that account. Nonetheless, the energies as such are timeless and eternal. Exactly how the eternal God can act in the world of time is something that no theology can pretend to explain.

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3.6 Energies as Distinct from Essence

Palamas advances another argument for a distinction between essence and energy, citing St. Cyril as attesting that “the divine energy and power consist in the fact that God is everywhere and contains all, without being contained by anything.” Yet the Essence does not consist uniquely in this fact (i.e., there is more to the Essence than being everywhere). “Essence and energy are thus not totally identical in God, even though He is entirely manifest in every energy, His essence being indivisible.” (III, ii, 9)

It is not clear that St. Cyril’s statement about omnipresence exhaustively specifies divine energy. If it did, he would have to mean energy only insofar as it manifested in the world, for divine activity as such has no location. Further, there would seem to be certain divine energies, such as the power of creation, prescience, and goodness, to which the notion of omnipresence is inapplicable or at least unnecessary. We might even regard omnipresence itself as a particular divine energy or attribute, rather than a defining feature of all divine energy.

As the translator N. Gendle remarks in a footnote, St. Cyril uses omnipresence to indicate that the energies are divine immanence in the cosmos. (p.149.) Yet Palamas, unlike St. Cyril, does not always confine the notion of energy to divine immanence. Thus he cannot validly invoke St. Cyril as attesting that the Palamist notion of divine energy is per se limited to omnipresence.

While we can certainly agree with Palamas that the energies, insofar as they are manifested in the world, are not totally identical with the Divine Essence, though the Essence is fully present in each of them, it might still be the case that the totality of divine energy per se, unlimited by the immanent attributes we apprehend in the world, is identical with the Divine Essence, for the Divine Essence is fully active, and in no way inert.

One might counter this identity by noting that there is generally a distinction between an essence and the fact of its activity, but this distinction is collapsed in God, whose essence is to act. A real distinction between essence and energies only makes sense insofar as we are considering energies strictly in their immanent aspect.

St. John Chrysostom, by contrast, says “that the essential energy of God consists in being nowhere… in the sense that it transcends time, place and nature.” (III, ii, 9) Here the energy is considered in its transcendent aspect, that is, as it is per se in the eternal Essence, which accounts for the use of the singular and for its description as “essential energy.” Divine energy as such is not in a specific place or time, nor is it in some determinate nature. St. Maximus would add that it is not even contained by a divine nature, since God is Superessential.

Palamas’s strongest Patristic evidence comes from St. Basil, who says it is “ridiculous to say that the creative power is an essence… that providence is an essence… simply taking every energy as essence.” This only shows that we cannot take each energy as an essence, but it does not deny that the Essence fully subsists in each energy (as Palamas) admits, nor that divine energy in general, considered per se, is indistinguishable from the Essence. All that is asserted is that the various energies and associated attributes are manifestations of the One Essence.

St. Maximus affirms that “all life absolutely, all immortality, and all the attributes that appertain essentially to God are works of God.” Here “works” should be understood as what we have been calling “energies,” since they pertain to God essentially. Here the energies are practically identified with the attributes, which is the sense in which the energies are perceived from the created world. Yet even these attributes as manifested in the world are considered ontologically prior to the world, and as still appertaining to the Divine Essence. They are not “works” in the sense of products, creatures or effects that are altogether distinct from God.

No created being or accident is ontologically prior to the manifested divine attributes. If we admit with the Fathers that all essences besides the Divine Essence were created by God, we should confess that the manifested attributes are prior even to “number,” which precedes contingent beings. In this view, the apparent plurality of the manifest energies would be ontologically posterior to the manifest energies themselves. Naturally, in the order of time they would be simultaneous, since the energies are instantly manifested as a plurality, by virtue of the structure of the world they create. Divine energy of itself is the Unity that is God.

Palamas, however, is interested in emphasizing the plurality of the energies and their non-identity with the Divine Essence, which requires him to consider them as they are manifested in the world. In this sense, none of the energies can be identified with the Essence of God; they “exist not in Him, but around Him,” much like the rays of the sun. Even here, it is important to stress that the energies are manifestations of the Essence, not something external to it.

The Divine Essence and energies may be further distinguished by the fact that the Fathers give names for the energies, but no name for the nature of the uncreated Trinity. (III, ii, 10) That is to say, positive or kataphatic theology applies only to the energies, not the unnameable, ineffably transcendent Essence. Again, this does not show that the energies are extrinsic to the Essence, but rather that they represent the immanent aspect of the Deity. God per se, by contrast, is completely inaccessible and incomprehensible.

Palamas uses the term “divinity” to refer to a particular energy, namely the power of deification or theosis. Barlaam, consistent with his notion of energies as external works of God, claimed that deification is created because it begins in time. Palamas seizes upon this, saying that Barlaam is absurdly maintaining that the “divinity of God” is created. This is not so, for only deification as manifested in world has a beginning, not divinity of itself. Again confusion arises when failing to distinguish between energeia in itself and as manifested in the world.

Palamas himself acknowledges that the energies are unoriginate, as God contemplated from outside of time all that He would do. God in His Essence comprehends all his nameable energies and more, so that the Divine Essence transcends all names.

Each energy manifests the Essence, and there are many energies, but this does mean that there is plurality in God. Invoking his favorite analogy, Palamas says that when we call each ray of sunlight “sun,” we do not deny that there is only one sun. This metaphor can work only if we hold that the energies are consubstantial (homoousion) in the One Essence.

The energies are not the Essence, but manifestations or acts of the Essence. Yet these acts considered per se are not extraneous to the Essence, which itself is pure Act, as the Thomists teach. In fact, the energies are not multiple and nameable except as they are manifested in the world. Considered in itself, there is no real distinction between energeia and the Essence.

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3.7 Participable Energies

Nonetheless, the manifestation of divine energies in the world certainly belongs to reality. Though we may not understand exactly how this can be so, somehow God is able to act upon the world, making His energies participable by creatures.

Barlaam claimed that only created things are participable, thereby denying the possibility of theosis except in an equivocal sense. We may participate in the works of God, and also the “powers and energies,” as these have a beginning and a temporal end. (III, ii, 11) Palamas was astonished that anyone dared to speak of the divine energies as creations. Here he clearly distinguished energeiai from erga, the former being uncreated aspects of Divinity, and the latter being the temporal works of God.

Palamas does not object to “powers and energies” being grouped together, since both are proper to God. In fact, Scholastics would hold there is no real distinction between divine power considered as faculty and as an operation, for there is no unrealized potentiality (inertness or incompleteness) in God. This does not imply that God does all possible external works (erga, only that His power is fully active. He may withhold some or all of this activity from various parts of creation. This does not occasion potentiality in God, but in creation.

We have repeatedly noted that divine energeia may be considered per se or as immanent in creation. It is in the latter aspect that the divine energies are participable, and may even be bounded in time (as Palamas admitted earlier), though they are uncreated. Although we are considering divine energies as manifested in the world, they are no less truly divine, so theosis really is “divinization.” This does not mean we partake of the imparticipable Divine Essence per se.

The Palamist approach to theology is a challenge to Latin thinking, insofar as we are accustomed to restrict discussion of energeia to its per se aspect, in which there is no real distinction with the Divine Essence. If it is possible to truly participate in energeia, from a Latin perspective it seems that this would imply participating in the imparticipable Divine Essence. Greek theology does not pretend to solve this contradiction, but only points to the mysterious reality that God is somehow both utterly transcendent and truly immanent in the world.

Following Denys (Pseudo-Dionysius), Palamas says that even the term “essence” ousia designates a power of God, that of “creating substance.” (III, ii, 11) That is one way to use the term, but it should not be confounded with the Scholastic usage, which refers to the being of God Himself, not His power to create being other than Himself. We recall that Palamas considers God as Superessential, prior to all being whatsoever. Even so, he sometimes uses the term “essence” to refer to God in His utter transcendence. On other occasions, he uses expressions such as “superessential” or “more than God” to indicate that we should not regard God as some definite, delineated substantive. Such expressions are not strictly necessary if we implicitly understand the Divine Essence to entail Infinity, the transcendence of all limits.

In the present context, Palamas treats ousia as an energy, i.e., the ever-operative power to create being. Thus he is able to argue against the Scholastic formula that God possess power “through the Essence.” The reality in which all energies are unified is God Himself, he says. The Lord told Moses, “I am the One who is,“ not “I am the Essence.” The One who is does not derive from essence, but essence derives from Him, “for it He who contains all being in Himself.” (III, ii, 12)

Palamas here assumes ousia must designate something distinct from simply God Himself. Yet Scholastics intend nothing other than God Himself when they speak of the Divine Essence, which they consider to have no real distinction from His Existence, i.e., God-who-is. It is significant, nonetheless, that God reveals Himself as the One who is, suggesting that His existence is at least formally prior to any essences. Thus He is the source of all being, including His essence!

This formulation has the advantage of emphasizes that God does not “receive” His powers from an essence or nature, but that He in His ineffable simplicity and unity is the source of all power and all being, i.e., “super-essential.”

Still, the Fathers and Latin Doctors correctly use the term “Essence” as long as they understand this to designate this ultimate transcendence of God, not intending thereby to define or limit God. The “Divine Essence” is really just another term for God in this usage. It is not Biblical, but we can hardly expect to find philosophically technical Greek in the Hebrew Old Testament. Nonetheless, revelation obliges us to identify the Divine Essence with God Himself in His transcendence, and not set it up as something prior to God”s activity or Existence.

Returning to the theme of deification, Palamas sees a need to qualify the use of the term “God,” distinguishing “God by nature” and “God by grace.” The latter refers to creatures which undergo theosis by divine grace, while the former refers to God per se. Even Palamas cannot avoid using essentialist terminology, since “by nature” here means per se or “by being” (ousia). Even if divine “nature” and “being” were somehow distinct, the use of the term “nature” can hardly be acceptable if “being” is considered too limiting. Why does Palamas allow one but not the other?

In Greek, we must recall that physis (“nature”) is a principle of growth or motion. As a principle, it is an origin. This notion of God as an originator of dynamic action is likely much more agreeable to Palamas because it does not constrain God to any static definition. Essence, on the other hand, seems to make God stagnant and contained. Just the same, any term we choose will be inadequate, since our minds will treat it as a definite substantive. It is better simply to accept that we intend our terms to designate that which transcends our comprehension, rather than quibble over the choice of label.

Still, in this case, there is a real difference in metaphysics underlying the choice of terms. Palamas, like the Greek Fathers, considered a “nature” or physis to be the unifying principle of ousia and energeia. The medieval Scholastics, by contrast, identified physis with ousia, i.e., the nature of a thing is what it is. This Aristotelian thesis was exploded by Galilean dynamics and modern physics, so it is today rightly derided as “essentialism.” Yet the Greek Orthodox have never denied the reality of essences (presupposed by the Nicene Creed); they are not nominalists. Meanwhile, some Scholastics, notably St. Thomas and the Neo-Thomists, have recognized existence as distinct from essence, like an actualization or energeia of essence. Thus the developed views of East and West are compatible if we understand “nature” as an existent principle.

A further terminological problem is that energeia is a confused concept in the East. Unlike the Latins, who consistently use actus in Aristotle’s sense of actualization, the Greeks sometimes use energeia to mean a faculty or power, and at other times as synonymous with ergon, i.e., a work. (This equivocal use makes Pope Honorius’s apparent confusion about the number of divine “operations” all the more understandable.) If energeia is a faculty or power, then it is already contained in what Latins call essentia. If energeia is an action or ergon, then this is distinct from the Latin essentia. If energeia is taken in Aristotle’s sense, then it is an essence’s mode of being. In the case of God alone, it is not really distinct from essence.

Barlaam invokes the authority of Denys as showing that the participable powers or energies are created, for Denys says: “The providential powers produced by the imparticipable God are Being-in-itself, Life-in-itself, and Divinity-in-itself,“ and that created beings participate in these according to their proper mode, thus becoming living and divine. If God is imparticipable, as Denys admits, then those participable powers cannot be God, according to Barlaam. By this logic, even so-called Divinity-in-itself is created, insofar as it is considered a participable energy. Such powers should be distinguished from the glory of God that is beyond participation and properly divine. The “participable” glory of God is not the Essence, and not eternal.

Gregory Palamas objects to (1) saying the powers of God are created and (2) saying that eternal glory is imparticipable. With regard to the second issue, he cites St. Gregory Nazianzen, who distinguishes the eternal glory contemplated by the angels from the imparticipable Essence. Thus the angelic intellects participate in a truly eternal glory, not some created surrogate. Denys says these divine intelligences are “united to the unoriginate and endless rays of the Beautiful and the Good.” Evidently, Denys likewise holds that this participable glory is eternal, even though it is distinct from the imparticipable Essence. (III, ii, 13)

The Essence is “superessential,” i.e., absolutely without limit, hence imparticipable. Although the Essence is One, its energies are many participable rays, to be identified with the many “divisions (merismois) of the Holy Spirit” mentioned by St. Paul. (Heb. 2:4) The Vulgate has this as distributionibus, in agreement with the sense of energetic outpourings. Somehow God gives a part or aspect of Himself in His energetic acts, enabling different modes of participation. We do not participate in the Divine Essence as such, but we do participate in something truly divine and eternal, since the “rays” are consubstantial with God.

Every union is through contact, Palamas says, invoking philosophy. Thus a union with such illuminations implies a real spiritual contact with them. Such contact with an illumination deserves to be called a vision. This vision is neither sensible nor intellectual, but spiritual or divine, since the divine energy or eternal light transcends all creatures (including angels). Thus no creature can perceive it by its own powers, so the light is also that by which we see. (Ibid., III, ii, 14)

When St. Gregory Nazianzen says the angels contemplate an eternal glory “eternally,” Palamas takes that to mean that the power by which they perceive the eternal glory is extraneous to the angelic nature. (Ibid., III, ii, 15) As further evidence that this is by grace, not by the natural power of angels, he notes that the demons still possess the nature of angels, yet they do not participate in divine glory. (Ibid., III, ii, 16) This does not strictly prove his claim, since failure to perceive can imply a removal of the object without loss of faculty. Nonetheless, if it were accepted that the glory contemplated by the angels really is divine energy, it would seem necessary that this should be by divine power, since the energy is substantially of the absolutely transcendent Essence.

Palamas distances himself from Scholastic philosophy, which regards all higher contemplations as “intellectual,” seeing the angels as beings of pure intellect. He instead uses the term “spiritual,” referring not to the spirits of men or angels, but to the Holy Spirit. The “light” is not an intellectual knowledge, but spiritual illumination. It is impossible to make bad use of it, for it quits anyone who is evil. It is “a divinising energy… in no way separable from the energising Spirit.” (III, ii, 17) The Holy Spirit supplies the energeiai which make possible theosis. Although the illuminated man has a beginning in time, the illumination, considered in itself, has no beginning. Recall that for Palamas, the illumination is not merely the experience of seeing, but that by which we see.

It is useful to distinguish three senses of illumination: (1) that which is seen; (2) that by which one sees; (3) the event of seeing. In Palamist theology, (1) and (2) are identical; they are the “light of Tabor” or “glory of God.” (3) is not eternal, but has a beginning in time. It is not an essence or energy, but a fact. It is limited by the character of the recipient, a created being. For (1)-(2) to be eternal, its reality must be independent of any creature’s participation. It is something that really exists from eternity, and is not just an experience created for our benefit.

Barlaam cited Denys as saying that God “established” the powers, which implies they were created. Palamas replies that Denys used “establish” (hyphistemi) in the sense that St. Basil says the Father “establishes” the Son. (III, ii, 18) The Son is not created, yet His source is in the Father. The same may be true of the powers, Palamas holds. Yet we have seen earlier that Denys referred to the powers as “produced.”

To extricate himself from this difficulty, Palamas admits that the existence of the powers is created, i.e., their manifestation in creation. The powers as such are said “not to exist” by reason of their transcendence; they are beyond participation. The created beings that participate in them are “beings,” but that in which they participate is unoriginate. (III, ii, 18)

Deciphering this ontology, Palamas understands existence much like Avicenna or Scotus, as a concrete individuation or determination of being. Since the powers are utterly transcendent, they have no determination of being, i.e., existence, until some creature participates in them.

Thomist ontology does not regard existence as a determination of being, but as the act or “to be” of a being or essence. In this understanding, divine power as such certainly exists and is uncreated. It is not the existence of divine power but its determinate manifestation that is created, and since these manifestations are many, we may speak of divine powers in the plural.

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3.8 Theophanic Energies

Barlaam held, against the hesychasts, that no man can see the Divine Essence, for even an angel cannot do this. Palamas replies that man sees God not by his own power, but because God deigns to reveal Himself by His power. Who would deny that God can do this? Against Barlaam’s claim that such a vision must be mediated through the angelic hierarchy, he retorts: “Are you trying to make subject to necessity the Master of necessity?” (III, iii, 5) In this powerful statement, Palamas affirms that God is not bound by any physical or metaphysical necessity; He can suspend any rules. Here he actually departs from the theology of Denys, who held that divine light is transmitted from higher to lower choirs of angels.

Palamas holds that the theophanies in Scripture were cases of men really seeing God. Such seems to have been true of Moses, who “spoke to the Lord face to face,” and of Abraham, who spoke to one who “swore by Himself.” If this was granted to the patriarchs, we should expect at least as much with the Christian saints.

St. Gregory of Nyssa explains that St. Stephen the first martyr saw “glory of God and the only Son of God,” not because his nature was exalted, but by the Holy Spirit. St. Gregory admits only that the divine glory, not the Divine Essence, is visible. This has been the traditional interpretation of the other Biblical theophanies as well. Thus it remains true that “No one has seen God.” (John 1:18) Palamas attempts a different interpretation of this verse, saying that it refers only to intellectual cognition, not spiritual contemplation. Yet this is an unlikely intention by the Evangelist, as the statement would lose all force. Supposedly, spiritual contemplation is superior to intellection, yet “No one has seen God” in the lesser way, only the greater? The more parsimonious interpretation is that no one has seen God in His Essence. They have only seen His glory or energies, which might be emanations of the Essence, but not the inexhaustible Superessential Essence as such. On this much, the Greek Fathers, Palamas, and the West are in agreement.

The energies by which man sees God, which we may call theophanic energies and Palamas calls “divinity,” are at once the thing seen and that by which we see, i.e., the glory of God. They seem to have an especially strong relation to the Divine Essence, since their function is to manifest it in some sense. Recall that such visions are called “spiritual” not with reference to the spirit of man, but because they are accomplished by the Holy Spirit, in Whom we are enabled to see the divine glory. Yet the Holy Spirit is the Divine Essence in its fullness, further indicating an especially close association between the Essence and theophanic energy.

To explain this relationship, Palamas invokes the Greek philosophical notion of essential energy. The Greek Fathers accepted that no nature can exist or be known unless it possesses essential energy. Recall that existence was considered a determination of being; in Thomist ontology, we would say that this “essential energy” is an actualization of being or essence, i.e., existence. The idea that energy is also that by which an essence is known comes from the influence of Plato and Plotinus. This employs a broad notion of knowing, i.e., by contact, sensation, intellection, or spiritual contemplation.

Given that the existence of an essence is dependent on its “essential energy,” Palamas advances two theses. (1) If an essential energy is created, then its essence is also created. (2) If an essence is uncreated, then its essential energy is also uncreated. (III, iii, 6)

In Thomist ontology, what the Greeks call “essential energy” is simply identical with existence, and it makes no sense to speak of “existence” as created or uncreated. Existence is not a thing, nor is it an action that something does, it is not “some thing” at all. It is the reality or actuality of an essence, not something superadded to it. Likewise, the “knowability” of an essence is not some additional thing that is created or uncreated. When we speak of the “existence” or “knowability” of an essence, these are not distinct subjects or beings, but modes or actualizations of some being or essence.

With this more refined ontology, unknown to Barlaam and Palamas alike,[5] the problem of the createdness or uncreatedness of essential divine energies, i.e., theophanic energies, disappears. The theophanic energy’s “uncreatedness” is the “uncreatedness” of the Essence. The theophanic energy is not another uncreated thing in addition to the Divine Essence. Here, of course, we are considering divine energy per se, not its manifestation in the world, which is bounded by time and space.

Although there is no need to speak of the “energies” of existence or knowability as distinct uncreated entities, what should we say of other divine energies? Palamas invokes the famous example that Christ has two natures and two energies, one human and one divine in each case. This Orthodox formulation, which identifies the “wills” in Christ as “energies,” indicates that the Divine Will is an energy. It is incontrovertible that this is an energy of the Divine Nature, for it is essential to God to will. It also seems unquestionable that the Divine Will is uncreated.

Once again, there is little reason to regard a divine energy’s “uncreatedness” as something other than the uncreatedness of the Essence. As even Palamas admits, the divine energies have the Essence as their substance; they are not something extraneous to the Essence, i.e., that which is not God. So there is no need to invoke them as additional uncreated beings. There is only one Divine Being (ousia); the “energies ” are nothing other than God-in-action, which is God Himself. The Thomist formula that God’s Essence is His Existence grasps this as best as words can express in that ontology. This would not deny the true divinity of theophanic energy, though it would eliminate the problem of treating it as an additional uncreated thing.

Still, Palamas needs some notion of energies as distinct from the Essence to give his account of theosis, where men participate in the Divine Nature according to some energy, not by becoming God by nature (i.e., infinite, imparticipable, etc.). There must be some sense in which this energy is of the Essence, and another in which it is distinct from the Essence.

God does not transcend the energies as an agent to his actions; i.e., the energeiai are not separable erga. Nonetheless, there must be some sense in which He does transcend the energies, for St. Maximus says the gift of theosis or divinity “eternally exists from the eternal God,” while Denys God is “more-than-God,” i.e. more than divinity. Somehow God is anterior and superior to the unoriginate energy. (III, iii, 8)

If God is anterior to the divinizing energy as St. Maximus suggests, then it must be unoriginate only in the sense of lacking a beginning in time, not as without a source. Palamas can affirm that the Essence is superior to energies only when the latter are conceived as determinate and enumerable, as in kataphatic theology. The Essence is considered apophatically, transcending any particular determination or attribute, so it is “ more than unoriginate,” “more than divinity,” etc. The Essence is superior to the kataphatic attributes or energies in the sense of being utterly undefinable and illimitable.

Still, these attributes or energies are just aspects of the Essence, not entities outside of the Essence. In other words, a given energy is not all that God is, but neither is it something that is not God. To avoid the inference that God consists of parts, we must regard the plurality of energies as something that is not in God per se, but as He engages the created world that admits pluralization. Divine energeia is God-in-action, not a separable act (ergon) of God. Insofar as it is God, it is One, yet considered with respect to what it works (ergon), it is plural and determinate.

While it is not clear that Palamas would accept the above inferences, he certainly recognized that the divine energies are not demiurges between God and creation. The substance of the energies is the Divine Essence, so the “superiority” of the Essence over kataphatic energies should not be construed as implying that it is made of better “stuff” than they are. Its anteriority to the energies does not imply priority in time or inequality of essence, just as the Son and Holy Spirit are not essentially subordinate to the Father on account of originating in Him.

Notwithstanding his earlier criticism of Barlaam for reducing God to an Essence, Palamas himself frequently uses the term Divine Essence to denote God in the highest, fullest sense. It should always be understood, however, that this Essence is not definable, but considered apophatically, transcending all conceptual limits.

The energies are unoriginate (or, as we might say, they convey something of the unoriginate Essence), so participation in grace can make a creature “unoriginate like Melchisedec.” (Loc. cit.) Divine energy is the means by which creatures finite in time can be made eternal, not in themselves, but by immersion in the divine eternity that the energy brings.

It is not by nature but by grace (which Palamas regards as energy) that some men are enabled to see the glory of God. Only those who are chosen are granted this gift, as was the case with the chosen disciples Peter, James and John on Mount Tabor. The Greek Liturgy on the Transfiguration says they saw the essential and eternal beauty of God on Mount Tabor. (III, iii, 9) This tradition contradicts Barlaam’s claim that they only saw the glory of God in creatures. This divine glory or energy, which is at once what is seen and that by which one sees, is proper to God, revealing something of the Divine Essence. This energy or glory is what Palamas and other hesychasts elsewhere call “uncreated light.” From the Gospel account, it seems that they saw this with their corporeal eyes. Although human eyes by nature cannot see God, they were transformed by grace in order to see something of this glory.

Although the divinizing energies enable men to transcend human nature, these energies remain proper to God, not man. Thus Gregory Palamas now says that the energies are in God, contrary to his usual metaphor of rays around the sun. Likewise, St. Maximus describes the divinized soul as entering into God, where he beholds the inner principles of created things. Such intellection may precede spiritual union. (III, iii, 10)

Barlaam objected to any hint that God can ever, in any circumstance, be a sensible object. He tried to pin Palamas down about the “Superessential,” which seemed to reduce the Essence to a mere possession of God. Any attempt to distinguish God from His Essence would result in this dichotomy: “If God possesses an essence, He is either a generic idea, contemplated in abstract thought, or else He is a particular object.” If God is not a formal abstraction or a mere instantiation of some essence, then He must be identical with His Essence.

Palamas replies that “God’ inner being is not at all the same as that of an existent object.” (Loc. cit.) This echoes Maimonides, who said existence is not predicated of God in same way as other beings.[6] Both Maimonides and Palamas regarded existence as a predication or determination of being. Since God is unbounded and undetermined in His inner Being, He is not to be equated with his “attributes,” including existence, which are determinate manifestations of the unbounded Superessential.

Here we find “attributes” including existence, distinguished from God’s inner Being, yet just previously this inner Being was described as divinizing energy. It is unlikely that Palamas here intends a distinction between energies and attributes. Rather, the divinizing energy reveals something of the inner Being, i.e., the Superessential, which is why it is depicted as drawing a person into God.

If God is seen only through energies or attributes, “that which surrounds Him,” this would be no different from other objects that are seen through their effects, according to Barlaam. We do not see the essence of the sun, but its surrounding effects or energies. Palamas responds that the term “sun” is commonly applied to the rays as well as their source, so there is only one sun. Likewise, there is but one God in His Essence and in His deifying grace, even though there is a sense in which the latter is “from” God. (III, iii, 11) The example of the sun is intended to show how energy can be distinct from essence without being a second thing.

Deifying grace is not identical with the subjective perception of the recipient. Just as rays exist before they are seen, so can the light of deification exist apart from experience. (III, iii, 11) Palamas does not identify the energies as manifestations, since he regards them as having prior existence independent of the creature. This divine illumination is not sensible of itself, or everyone could see it.

Recapitulating, God Himself is Superessential Essence, by which we mean an Essence that is not confined by any definition. God-in-action is Divine Energy, which is substantially the Essence, but manifested in the world as distinct operations or attributes. According to Palamas, the energies are plural and determinate even before they are perceived. This would imply that God determines them before they touch creation, so they are uncreated eternal realities, not merely the perspectives of creatures. Whether we regard this as cogent or not, it would seem that some kind of paradox needs to be involved in order to account for the fact that God truly communicates something of His imparticipable Essence through deification.

In the Palamist view, it seems, deifying grace is not merely that which enables man to see God, but an eternal reality or aspect of God waiting to be seen. Palamas holds that the energy of deification is the same as the grace that grants man the likeness of God, i.e., sanctifying grace, and this grace is also light. He quotes St. Gregory Nazianzen, first to show that the grace of sanctification or divine union in the life to come is also light: “So, beholding the light of the hidden and more-than-ineffable glory, in company with the celestial powers, they become themselves capable of receiving the blessed purity.” The light of divine glory is a pre-existing reality, already beheld by the angels, which enables one to receive divine purity, restoring fully the imago Dei. This sanctification deserves to be called theosis, for St. Gregory the Theologian continues: “He remains entirely man by nature in his soul and body, and becomes entirely God in his soul and body through grace, and through the divine radiance of the blessed glory with which he is made entirely resplendent.” (III, iii, 13) St. Gregory regards the light or radiance as divine, but it is less clear that he fully equates this light with sanctifying grace. Instead, it seems that he regards theosis as the joint work of an interior sanctifying grace and a divine light that imparts the glory of God to man in his exterior aspect.

Regardless of how the deifying gifts are enumerated, St. Gregory Nazianzen and Gregory Palamas agree that both soul and body can be purified by some illuminating grace in order to perceive God. This is not the merely intellectual illumination that God sometimes grants, enabling us to apprehend Him briefly and tenuously through some intelligible attribute. Rather, all the faculties of body and soul are purified in order to become receptive to a more perfect, spiritual illumination. (III, iii, 12) The same energy that reveals God also makes man God-like, since no creature can perceive God by its own natural power.

Against Barlaam’s rationalistic (some would say Platonic) tendency to insist that the sensitive faculties should be deadened in order to perceive God, Palamas holds that even the sensitive faculties are transformed and perfected so that they may participate in this illumination. (III, ii, 15) This will be necessary to support the hesychasts’s claim that the divine light can be seen even with corporeal eyes.

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Continue to Part II


[1] It is disputed, though hardly relevant, whether Barlaam was a convert to Greek Orthodoxy or born into that tradition. At any rate, his espousal of Scholasticism has been greatly exaggerated. In fact, he wrote treatises (published in Italian as Opere contro i Latini, 1998; cf. Migne, PG vols. 150-151) opposing Thomistic theses, papal primacy, the filioque, and Latin Arisotelianizing. Indeed, Barlaam may have been the originator of the anti-Aristotelianism adopted by Palamists in the late fourteenth century, a stance not held by Palamas himself. [Antoine LÚvy. “The Woes of Originality”, ch. 4 in Divine Essence and Divine Energies: Ecumenical Reflections on the Presence of God in Eastern Orthodoxy, eds. C. Athanasopoulos and C. Schneider (Cambridge: James Clarke, 2013), pp. 98 seq.]

Barlaam was firmly in the Eastern tradition in many respects, and his opposition to hesychasm was based not only in the Aristotelian epistemology of knowledge coming through the senses, but also in a Neoplatonic doctrine that God is beyond sensible experience and absolutely incomprehensible, so He can be known only indirectly and symbolically. It is this latter postulate that runs against the Orthodox belief in theosis, and indeed logically leads to agnosticism. [L'esicasmo e la controversia Palamitica] [16 May 2017]

[2] “…these various attributes which describe His Might, Greatness, Power, Goodness, etc. are identical, denoting His Essence, and not anything extraneous to His Essence.” Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, M. Friedlander trans., 2nd. ed. (New York: Dover Pub., 1956 [repub. 1904 ed.]), I, xx, p. 29. Also: “God is active, never passive,” Ibid., I, xliv, p. 58.

[3] “…the object of the divine will is His goodness, which is His Essence. Hence, since the will of God is His Essence, it is not moved by another than itself, but by itself alone…” St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1a, 19, 1. In the same article, St. Thomas does not identify intellect and will primarily with the Essence, but with God’s existence, i.e., the act of being. Yet there is no real distinction between essence and existence in God. Further, the Essence is not something distinct from God Himself. Ibid., 1a, 3, 3-4.

Maimonides says “all the actions of God emanate from His Essence, not from any extraneous thing superadded to His Essence.” Also, “these different actions do not imply that different elements must be contained in the substance of the agent.” Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, op. cit., I, lii, p.72. Elsewhere, he says that faculties such as external or inner senses are attributed to God only equivocally. “In truth, however, no real attribute, implying an addition to His essence, can be applied to Him…” Ibid., I, xlvii, pp. 63-64.

[4] Nicholas Gendle, trans. Gregory Palamas: The Triads, ed. John Meyerdorff (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1983).

[5] As Etienne Gilson observed, St. Thomas’ understanding of essence and existence was ignored by most Scholastics until the neo-Thomist revival of the nineteenth century. Etienne Gilson. Being and Some Philosophers (Toronto: Pontifical Inst. of Medieval Studies, 1949).

[6] Maimonides, op. cit., I, xxxv, p. 49.

© 2016-17 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.
* Original publication dates: Part I, 29 Mar 2016; Part II, 7 May 2017.