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THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN THE ESSENCE AND THE ENERGY OF GOD*
Protopresbyter John S. RomanidesPatristic Theology: The University Lectures
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In Orthodox tradition, we talk about the theological distinction between essence and energy. And although we contrast God’s energy with His essence, it is understood that the energy is the natural energy of the essence. But this natural energy of God’s essence does not differ from God’s essence and is not separate from it. The essence and the energy of the essence are not divergent realities.

Nevertheless, some of our theologians talk about the energy of God as though it were different from the essence of God. They say that the essence of God is one thing, but that the energy of the essence is something else altogether.

When you read the Fathers, you really can get the impression that the essence and the energy of God are two different things. But the Fathers express themselves in this way only in order to stress the distinction in God between essence and energy. But what these theologians fail to notice is that the Fathers teach that the energy of God is the natural energy of God’s essence. In other words, this energy is an essential energy. The essence of God has a natural energy whose existence arises from the existence of the essence. The Fathers do speak about this natural energy of the essence.

The other point that the Fathers stress is that this natural energy of God’s essence is utterly simple, even as God’s essence is utterly simple. Nevertheless, this simple energy “is indivisibly divided among individual creatures.” But what does this mean? If we apply Aristotle’s law of contradiction, it is nonsense. After all, does it make any sense to say that something is “indivisibly divided among individual creatures?” What does it mean for an energy to be separated into parts without being parted? How can a thing be plural and singular at the same time? Yet this simple energy really “is indivisibly divided among individual creatures.” The Fathers do make this statement. St. Gregory the Theologian says it. In fact, this very expression can also be found in the writings of St. John of Damascus and St. Gregory Palamas. They all maintain that this simple energy is multiplied. How? Without being multiplied. Where? Throughout many creatures.

But what does this mean? It means that when a prophet is in a state of theosis, he is in contact with God and can see that this simple energy of God is present throughout all of creation. God’s energy is one, but it has many resultant energies. And this one energy is in each distinct energy. And within each of these energies, all of God is present.

When God created the world, He did not create the world through His essence, but through His energy and at will. So there is a union between God’s uncreated energy and creation.

Although this energy of God is quite simple, we can perceive differences between God’s creative energy, His providential (preserving) energy, His purifying energy, His illumining energy and His glorifying energy. These distinct forms of the one selfsame energy of God are not identical. If they were identical, then all of creation would partake, for example, of God’s glorifying energy. But what would that mean? It would mean that all of creation would see God. But how do we know that these energies are not identical? The Church knows full well on the basis of Her experience of divine grace that God’s illumining energy and His glorifying energy are not the same. How do we know that they are not the same? We know this from the fact that some people, the saints, have reached a state of theosis, while others have not.

So being “indivisibly divided among individual creatures” does not mean that something big is divided and becomes small. It does not mean that God is diminished.

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* The Orthodox theological term ‘energy’ [energia] should not be confused with the standard meaning of the word as ‘power’ or ‘capacity for doing work: (e.g., electrical or nuclear energy). It also has no relation to the use ofthe word ‘energy’ by those in the New Age movement when they speak about energy contained in crystals that can transform and heal the human consciousness. Energia is a term used by Aristotle to mean action, operation and energy. In the New Testament, the term meant exclusively activity and action. During the Patristic period, the term was used to describe God’s activity, working, influence, and active force. St. John of Damascus dedicates a chapter to the subject of the many connotations suggested by the term energia in his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. He notes that every nature has a corresponding force and activity that are called energy. The term energia includes natural responses arising from nature (e.g., hunger and thirst are natural energies of human nature), activities appropriate to a nature (e.g., eating and drinking are natural energies of human nature), and the result of the force or activity. An energy reveals that a life is voluntary, rational, and independent. —TRANS.