Fourteenth century Orthodox theology, centered around the person of Saint Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica, posited the existence of the divine uncreated energies in response to the question of deification. Maintaining the absolute inaccessibility of the Godhead, but also admitting that the human person is called to an intimate participation in the life of the Godhead, Gregory held that this intimate participation with an absolutely inaccessible Godhead was made possible by participation in the uncreated energies. This position is explained by Vladimir Lossky in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church
The question of the possibility of any real union with God, and, indeed, of mystical experience in general, thus poses for Christian theology the antinomy of the accessibility of the inaccessible nature. How is it possible that Holy Trinity should be the object of union and of mystical experience in general? Vigorous theological debates were provoked by this question in the East towards the middle of the fourteenth century, and these resulted in the conciliar decisions which clearly formulated the traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church on the subject. St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica, and the spokesman of the councils of this great period of Byzantine theology, devoted a dialogue entitled Theophanes to the question of the incommunicable and yet communicable deity. When he is considering the meaning of St. Peter’s words, “partakers of the divine nature”, St. Gregory of Thessalonica affirms that this statement has a antinomic character analogous to the dogma of the Trinity. Just as God is at the same time both one and three, “the divine nature must be said to be at the same time both exclusive of, and, in some sense, open to participation. We attain to participation in the divine nature, and yet at the same time it remains totally inaccessible. We need to affirm both a the same time and to preserve the antinomy as a criterion of right devotion.
What is the nature of the relationship by which we are able to enter into union with the Holy Trinity? If we were able at the a given moment to united to the very essence of the God and to participate in it even in the very least degree, we should not at the moment be what we are, we should be God by nature. God would then no longer be Trinity, but [a myriad of hypostases]; for He would have as many hypostases as there would be persons participating in His essence. God, therefore, is and remains inaccessible to us in His essence. But can we then say that it is with one of the three divine Persons that we enter into union? This would be the hypostatic union proper to the Son alone, in whom God becomes man without ceasing to be the second Person of the Trinity. Even though we share the same human nature as Christ and receive in Him the name of sons of God, we do not ourselves become the divine hypostasis of the Son by the fact of the Incarnation. We are unable, therefore, to participate in either the essence or the hypostases of the Holy Trinity. Nevertheless the divine promise cannot be an illusion: we are called to participate in the divine nature. We are therefore compelled to recognize in God an ineffable distinction, other than that between His essence and His persons, according to which He is, under different aspects, both totally inaccessible and at the same time accessible. This distinction is that between the essence of God, or His nature, properly co-called, which is inaccessible, unknowable and incommunicable; and the energies or divine operations, forces proper to and inseparable from God’s essence, in which He goes forth from Himself, manifests, communicates, and gives Himself. “The divine and deifying illumination and grace is not the essence but the energy of God”, a “divine power an energy common to the nature in three”. Thus, according to St. Gregory Palamas, “to say that the divine nature is communicable not in itself but through its energy, is to remain within the bounds of right devotion”. (69-70).
The argument as presented by Lossky, who goes further to support Gregory’s position with Scripture and passages from the fathers, is understandable, and even convincing, given the starting position and premises. When I was first presented with this position in school, I was told that it directly contradicted 1 John 3:2, “we do know that when it is revealed we shall be like [God], for we shall see him as he is
”. The above argument, however, does not separate these uncreated energies from the divine essence, nature or persons. The uncreated energies, according to St. Gregory Palamas, does allow the human person to see God as He is. I was immediately reminded of St. Teresa’s mansions and the illumination of the divine flowing outward, illuminating the various rooms to various degrees. I was also reminded of an eschatology class wherein we were taught that in the beatific vision there is always something further to discover in the Godhead, a journey along the Godhead’s radiant being.
On the other hand, a striking feature of the argument is its concern with the divine essence. This places a constraint on the argument from a Thomistic standpoint. For example, when Aquinas speaks of divine essence he is using a necessary construct of language; for Aquinas God must first be understood as perfect existence, thus God’s essence is simple in the fact that His essence is His existence. Thus, a Thomistic understanding of the simplicity of the divine essence is always in regard to the perfection of being as infinite. Infinity can be understood in two ways. “in a primitive sense… a thing is called infinite… when it should naturally have limits but lacks them; and this applies only to quantities. In another sense a thing is called infinite negatively, that is, when it has no limit. If infinitude is understood in the first sense, it cannot belong to God… but infinitude in the second and negative sense does belong to God
” (De Potentia
, I, 2). An example of the first would be mathematical infinity, or an position that argues the world existing without beginning or end. The second understanding is achieved by the way of negation, or the apophatic
method, by negating of God those things that are composite, temporal, corporeal or mutable, in short negating from God what we experience in created reality. Thus, when Aquinas speaks of divine simplicity he is speaking of the divine in relation to created existence. In comparison, because the divine lacks mutability, corporeality, composition, or temporality, the divine can be said to be simple.
Eastern theology has always attempted to stay true to the apophatic method, and oftentimes Eastern criticism of western theology assumes that western theology has abandoned the apophatic method. However, this is certainly not the case with St. Thomas, nor, I would venture, with Catholic theology in general. Even though Aquinas may use seemingly positive terms to refer to the Godhead, such as “infinite”, he is using these words in the negative sense. It appears that Eastern thinkers are attributing Leibniz’s theory of the monad to Catholic theology, which is simply not the case. This may, however, be due to some poor representation during the fourteenth century. Barlaam, for example, saw St. Gregory of Palamas’ position as an affront to the divine simplicity. Barlaam was trained in the west under the tutalage, it appears of Aquinas’ Summa
, however, Barlaam’s position, as presented by Lossky, is not true to St. Thomas’ understanding of divine simplicity. According to Lossky, Barlaam posited that God is limited by His simple essence (77). This sounds like a monad, not Aquinas’ understand of an infinite God, with infinity understood in the negative sense. According to St. Thomas’ understanding of the Godhead as perfect existence, there can necessarily be no limitation placed on God, be it internal or external. By saying that God is limited by his essence is a meaningless syllogism; for God’s essence is His existence, and His existence is without limitation. To say that God is limited by his essence is to reduce God to the status of creatures, that are indeed limited by their essences, but such a position would not be held by St. Thomas, nor could it be held by him due to his use of the apophatic method.
It is apparent that the Eastern approach is one that starts with a consideration of essence, while the Thomistic approach is one that starts with a consideration of existence. My own rustic understanding of the various approaches leads me to think that there is no problem with the doctrine of the divine energies if these divine energies are considered as a manifestation of the unlimited being of God; or, Thomistically speaking, the infinity of God in relation to those saved. I’m not saying that the uncreated energies are simply a matter of conceptualizing; I wouldn’t want to offend the sensitivities of my Eastern brethren. What I’m saying is, you say uncreated energies, I say the divine infinity… in the end we are talking about the same thing.
I find it interesting that much criticism has been leveled against the Catholic Church for defining doctrines without the consent of Eastern theology. Often times, Eastern critics of Catholicism claim that Catholics are adding to the deposit of faith. However, in the case of the uncreated energies we see the Eastern Orthodox Churches defining doctrine in the fourteenth century in the exact same way, with the same kinds of Scriptural, patristic and theological argumentation.
My reading of Lossky has really perked my interest in this subject, and I have a lot of questions about this particular doctrine in relation to the Catholic Church. What is the official Catholic response to the doctrine of the uncreated energies? Do Eastern Catholic Churches recognize this doctrine? Is Gregory Palamas recognized as a saint in the Eastern Catholic Churches?