Posts Tagged eastern orthodox tradition
Essence (οὐσία; ousía)
In order to understand God’s essence, we have to spend a little time understanding how to approach an understanding of God!
Since the writings of St. Dionysius the Areopagite in the 5th century (e.g., “Concerning Mystical Theology”), apophatic theology, or the via negativa, has enjoyed undisputed authority in the theological tradition of both the Christian East and West (Lossky).
Vladimir Lossky tells us that, “Dionysius distinguishes two possible theological ways. One – that of cataphatic or positive theology – that proceeds by affirmations; the other – apophatic or negative theology – by negations. The first leads us to some knowledge of God, but in an imperfect way. The perfect way, the only way which is fitting in regard to God, who is of His very nature unknowable, is the second – which leads us finally to total ignorance.” Lossky does not leave us with that depressing thought, but goes on to explain that, “All knowledge has as its object that which is. Now God is beyond all that exists. In order to approach Him it is necessary to deny all that is inferior to Him, that is to say, all that which is. It is by unknowing (ἀγνωσία) that one may know Him who is above every possible object of knowledge. Proceeding by negations one ascends from the inferior degrees of being to the highest, by progressively setting aside all that can be known, in order to draw near to the Unknown in the darkness of absolute ignorance.”
Fr. John Meyendorff makes the same point as Lossky, “The writings of the Fathers – and particularly Dionysius – emphasized, as the starting point of any Christian discourse about God, the affirmation that God is not any of the creatures and that, therefore, the created mind, which “knows” only creatures, can conceive of God only by the method of exclusion. The most frequently repeated liturgical prayers, familiar to all, were using the same apophatic approach to God: “Thou art God ineffable, invisible, incomprehensible,…”. Later, Meyendorff remarks on “… the apophatic theology of the Greek Fathers, which affirmed absolute transcendence of the divine essence, inaccessible to the angels themselves.”
Eastern Christianity teaches that the essence, being, nature and substance (ousia) of God is uncreated and incomprehensible. Lossky finally summarizes all apophatic descriptions by defining God’s essence as “that which finds no existence or subsistence in another or any other thing”.
To be continued…
Energies (ἐνέργεια; enérgeia)
In our discussion on God’s energies, I will rely heavily on the writings of the greatest expositor on the Essence and Energies of God, St. Gregory Pálamas (1296–1359). Palamas was a monk of Mount Athos in Greece and later the Archbishop of Thessaloniki. He is known as the preeminent theologian of Hesychasm (Greek: silence, stillness, or quietude), the ancient Christian tradition of contemplative prayer and theosis, or union with God, dating back to the 2nd century.
In the 1330s and 1340s Palamas defended the theology and doctrine of Hesychasm against Barlaam the Calabrian, a theologian trained in Western Scholastic tradition of reason and logic, who attacked the doctrines and practices of the Hesychasts, accusing them of heresy and blasphemy.
In response to Barlaam’s attacks, Palamas wrote nine treatises entitled “Triads For The Defense of Those Who Practice Sacred Quietude [Hesychasts]”. The treatises are called “triads” because they were organized as three sets of three treatises. Ultimately, Palamas prevailed and his theology was endorsed in a series of six patriarchal councils held in Constantinople between 1341 and 1351. Barlaam was anathematized, returned to Italy, and joined the Roman Catholic Church where is views received a more sympathetic reception.
Most of what follows comes from Fr. John Meyendorff’s 1983 publication of St. Gregory Palamas’ “Triads”.
Myendorff observed that, “The distinction in God between “essence” and “energy” – that focal point of Palamite theology – is nothing but a way of saying that the transcendent God remains transcendent, as He communicates Himself to humanity.” Unpacking this idea a bit further, he explains, “…for Palamas, this transcendent essence of God would be a philosophical abstraction if it did not possess “power”, that is, “the faculties of knowing, of prescience, of creating”. In other words, the God of Palamas is a living God…”
“The real communion, the fellowship and – one can almost say – the familiarity with the “One Who Is” [God] is, for Palamas the very content of the Christian experience, made possible because the “One Who Is” [God] became man.”
“After the coming of Christ … God enters into immediate communion with humanity.” So, for Palamas the Incarnation of Christ, the Logos, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, is absolutely central. Indeed, true “deification” (theosis) became possible when, according to the expressions of St. Athanasius, “God became man in order that man might become God in him”.
To be continued…
In the context of this affirmation of God’s real manifestation of his energies to creatures, Palamas, following Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus, refers to the New Testament accounts and references to the Transfiguration of Christ on the mount (Mt. 17:1-9; Mk. 9:2-9;Lk. 9:28-36; 2 Pet. 1:17-21). This idea of “God as Light” recurs throughout Patristic literature including the aforementioned Maximus and John, plus the likes of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius the Areopagite, St. Symeon the New Theologian, and Gregory Palamas himself.
Palamas was quick to point out the difference between any other light-experience and that of the vision of God as Light that appeared to the disciples during the Transfiguration on Mount Thabor and that, in Christ, has become accessible to the members of His Body, the Church. The following quote from Palamas (Triad I, 3, 38) uses the image of the illumination of the disciples by Christ on Mount Thabor to explain how we, in Christ, can be illuminated from within.
“Since the Son of God, in his incomparable love for man, did not only unite His divine Hypostasis with our nature, by clothing Himself in a living body and a soul gifted with intelligence… but also united himself,,, with the human hypostases themselves, in mingling himself with each of the faithful by communion with his Holy Body, and since he becomes one single body with us (cf. Eph. 3:6), and makes us a temple of the undivided Divinity, for in the very body of Christ dwelleth the fullness of the Godhead bodily (Col. 2:9), how should he not illuminate those who commune worthily with the divine ray of His Body which is within us, lightening their souls, as He illumined the very bodies of the disciples on Mount Thabor? For, on the day of the Transfiguration that Body, source of the light of grace, was not yet united with our bodies; it illuminated from outside those who worthily approached it, and sent the illumination into the soul by an intermediary of the physical eyes; but now, since it is mingled with us and exists in us, it illuminates the soul from within.” ~ Palamas Triad I, 3, 38
“It is precisely because Palamas understands illumination in the framework of Orthodox Christology that he insists on the uncreated character of divine light: This uncreated light is the very divinity of Christ, shining through his humanity. If Christ is truly God, this light is authentically divine.” (Meyendorff)
To be continued
The same Christological framework makes it inevitable to distinguish between the transcendent essence, or nature of God, and His energies. Indeed, in Christ His two natures – so precisely defined at Chalcedon as both “inseparable” and “unconfused” – remain distinct. Therefore deification of communion between divinity and humanity does not imply a confusion of essences or natures. It remains nevertheless real communion between the Uncreated and His creature, and real deification – not by essence, but by energy. The humanity of Christ, “enhypostasized” by the Logos, is penetrated with divine energy, and Christ’s body becomes the source of divine light and deification. It is “theurgic”, that is, it communicates divine life to those who are “in Christ” and participate in the uncreated energies active in it.” (Meyendorff)
Theologian Christos Yannaras uses an analogy from Maximus the Confessor to further explain the distinction between essence and energies:
St. Maximus the Confessor uses as an image and an example of such communion the human voice, which being one is participated in by many, and is not swallowed up by the multitude. If by taking this example we can arbitrarily consider human reason as essence, then we can say that the voice represents the energy of the essence of reason, the possibility for us to participate in the essence of reason as the voice reveals and communicates it, to participate, all of us who hear the same voice, in the same essence of the one reason — without this communion becoming our identification with the essence of reason, and without the fragmentation of the essence in as many parts as there are participants in the reason through the voice. Reason, expressed personally, remains unified and indivisible, while at the same time, it is singularly participated by all.” ~ From “The Distinction Between Essence and Energies and its Importance for Theology”
To be continued…
An understanding of God’s energies allows humankind to experience God directly through a personal relationship with the Persons of the triadic Godhead; the divine persons in communion and relationship with humanity as persons. That aligns with and supports every human being achieving their purpose in life; having been created in the image of God, to attain to His likeness, partaking of the divine nature, in this life.
Without an understanding the distinction between God’s Essence and Energies we cannot reconcile the reality of a totally transcendent, ineffable, and unknowable God with the reality of the intensely personal relationship with Christ inherent in the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit within us. Christos Yannaras described the problem:
“The West rejected the distinction, desiring to protect the idea of simplicity in the divine essence, since rational thought cannot accept the antinomy [paradox] of a simultaneous existential identity and otherness, a distinction that does not mean division and fragmentation. For the western mind…God is defined only in terms of His essence; whatever is not essence does not belong to God; it is a creature of God, the result of divine essence.”
Without this theology of the Essence and Energies of God, the praxis of the Renewal Movement, the indwelling presence and power of God in intimate personal relationship within us, is left with no complementary supporting theology or doctrine. It is left without its complementary, supporting doxis. We are left with a religion with a split personality, with no continuity between its belief and action; its doxis and praxis.
You will note that the Western Latin (Roman Catholic and Protestant) Church, embodied in the person of Barlaam of Calabria, does not recognize the Essence-Energies doctrine. Hence, Western theology and doctrine have no means of explaining and dealing with the transcendence of God and with the simultaneous indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit which animates Renewal Movement Christians. The West has no orthodoxis which complements and supports a spirit-filled orthopraxis.
This orthodoxis is only found in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
“A Christian is not a Christian simply because he is able to talk about God. He is a Christian because he is able to have experience of God. And just as, when you really love someone and converse with him, you feel his presence, and you enjoy his presence, so it happens in man’s communion with God: there exists not a simply external relationship, but a mystical union of God and man in the Holy Spirit.” ~ Archimandrite George (Kapsanis), Abbott of the Holy Monastery of St. Gregorios on Mount Athos
Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) – (1945- ) is a Greek Orthodox metropolitan and theologian. He graduated from the Theological School of the University of Thessaloniki and is one of the finest Patristic scholars living.
“The term “Orthodox Psychotherapy” does not refer to specific cases of people suffering from psychological problems of neurosis. Rather it refers to all people. According to Orthodox Tradition, after Adam’s fall man became ill; his “nous” was darkened and lost communion with God. Death entered into the person’s being and caused many anthropological, social, even ecological problems. In the tragedy of his fall man maintained the image of God within him but lost completely the likeness of Him, since his communion with God was disrupted. However the incarnation of Christ and the work of the Church aim at enabling the person to attain to the likeness of God, that is to reestablish communion with God. This passage way from a fallen state to divinization is called the healing of the person, because it is connected with his return from a state of being contrary to nature, to that of a state according to nature and above nature. By adhering to Orthodox therapeutic treatment as conceived by the Holy Fathers of the Church man can cope successfully with the thoughts (logismoi) and thus solve his problems completely and comprehensively.” ~ Met. Hierotheos Vlachos, from “Orthodox Psychotherapy – The Science of the Fathers”
“Here within are the riches of heaven, if you desire them. Here O sinner, is the kingdom of God within you. Enter into yourself, seek more eagerly and you will find it without great travail. Outside you is death, and the door to death is sin. Enter within yourself and remain in your heart, for there is God.”
– St Ephraim the Syrian
D.B. Hart: “For my money, if Origen was not a saint and church father, then no one has any claim to those titles.”
“For my money, if Origen was not a saint and church father, then no one has any claim to those titles. And the contrary claims made by a brutish imbecile Emperor are of no consequence.” – D.B. Hart, from a blog post 11 May 2015.