Problems in Thomism – Essence/Energy

Problems in Thomism

By: Jay Dyer

Part 1: God

In disputes over the essence – energy distinction there is much confusion. I recently read through several more pages of God, History & Dialectic by Dr. Joseph P. Farrell and have come across some enlightening points that I hope will further the dialogues and debates. In this article, I want to concentrate on the meaning of simplicity and other areas of theology which are directly affected by this teaching, such as Christology and soteriology. Several Calvinists and former Calvinists, as well as some Thomists have requested a better explanation of these ideas.

Let us first recall the definitions of key terms as derived from classical dogmatic/conciliar orthodoxy:

(1) Persons- or Hypostases (also subjects). answering the question “Who is doing it?”

(2) Energies answering the question What is it that that They are doing?”

(3) Essence or Nature or ousia, answering the question what are the they, that are doing these things.

(4) Nestorius said there were two personal subjects in Jesus incarnate – the Son of God joined to a human person, Jesus of Nazareth. This was condemned at Ephesus and in St. Cyril.

(5) Absolute divine simplicity (ADS or DDS) is the normative western (Catholic & Protestant) view that all relations and attributes and actions in God are irreducibly and isomorphically identified with His simple nature or essence. God is actus purus – pure act, with no potentiality. To will is to be in God, and the Persons are also identified with the simple essence. God supposedly is what He has and does. Simplicity in this sense means no distinctions and no composition – irreducibly one.

(6) Analogia entis – the standard Latin and mediveal west’s way of reasoning from creatures to the divine essence/substance. This characterizes cataphatic, or positive statements about the divine nature as is found in western theology.

(7) Enhypostatized – the mode of a thing, in this case the mode of persons. Thus we say nature is enhypostatized, or exists only in the mode of particular persons or subjects. There is, then, no human nature that is not actually instantiated in some individual human person.

First, let’s consider where this doctrine of simplicity of the great super essence – “the One” – arises from and where it entered “Christian” theology. Simplicity cannot be understood apart from the Plotinian concept of absolute oneness (simplicity) and that dialectic is opposition. Dr. Farrell explains of Plotinus’ view:

“Dialectic is the science that “discusses good and not good, and the things that are classed under good and, its opposite. and what is eternal and not eternal with certain knowledge about everything and not mere opinion.” Thus aIl distinctions whatsoever are rendered as oppositions or in the more forceful rhetoric of Plotinus,distinction ts opposition. The essence of the dialectic in the case of the One, at least, is “the reconciliation or opposites,” or rather the reduction to absolute sameness and unity: to identity.” (God, History & Dialectic, vol. 1, pg. 103)

So we see that dialectic is understood in a dualism-of-opposition fashion. Aquinas picks this up within his scholastic heritage and writes:

“On the contrary, Things which are opposed in idea, are themselves opposed to each other. But the idea of “one” consists in indivisibility; and the idea of “multitude” contains division. Therefore “one” and “many” are opposed to each other.

I answer that, “One” is opposed to “many,” but in various ways. The “one” which is the principle of number is opposed to “multitude” which is number, as the measure is to the thing measured. For “one” implies the idea of a primary measure; and number is “multitude” measured by “one,” as is clear from Metaph. x. But the “one” which convertible with “being” is opposed to “multitude” by way of privation; as the undivided is to the thing divided.” (Summa Theologica, I.11.2)

Because of the analogia entis (analogy of being), categories of creation will be applied to the divine essence (though suppsedly not definitive in Thomism); categories such as one, many, being, etc. Here, Aquinas shows us that he accepts the Plotinian concept of one and many in dialectical opposition. This will play into His views of the Trinity as this is within the very section of the Summa where he discusses the “unicity” of God.

Next, let’s consider the meaning of simplicity in Plotinus. Dr. Farrell explains:

“Thus. when Plotinus states that the One is “beyond being” he might be construed to mean that the One is utterly transcendant, but a more Iikely interpretation is that he means that the One is beyond the distinctions of and the categories applied to them. Thus, put in different ways, the simplicity ‘ of the One means that any categories when used of It are reduced to ontological identity reduced to ontological identtiy with It. The different names of the One do not, therefore, do not correspond to distinct underlying realities, but to One reality. ln the apt words of the liberal Protestant theologian of the Second Europe, Paul Tillich, the simplicity is the abyss of everything specific.” (God, History & Dialectic, Vol. 1, pg. 104)

This will be seen to be perfectly in line with the three great Western “As” – Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas. Say, “AAAAA!” So where does this enter Christian theology as a definitive position that is more worked out (than is seen in the Apologists and Tertullian, for example)? In none other than Origen himself. Origen, we find out, in De Principis, wrote:

“We can therefore imagine no moment whatsover when that Power was not engaged in acts of well-doing. Whence it follows that there always existed objects of well-doing, namely, God’s works or creatures. and that God in the power of His providence was always,dispensing His blessings among them . It follows plainly from this that at no time was God not Creator nor Benefactor, nor Providence.”

Dr. Farrell comments:

“ln other words, God’s essence is eternal. But His essence, according to the Neoplatonic simplicity is the same thing as any of His operations. Therefore, the operations are eternal. But herein lies the dilemma that has been haunting us all along: if God’s operations are eternal and alvvays acts of His essence and no different from It, then not only is creation etemal, but it is also in fact not essentially different than His essence. Moreover, it will be impossible to distinguish between the eternal generation of the Son on the one hand, and the eternal production of creation on the other, since both are acts both of essence and of will (which are really, after all, the same thing). (Ibid., 112)

This is the argument I made in a recent post based on Thomas’ argumentation in the Summa Contra Gentiles. Thomas says very clearly that God’s act of creation is the same as His act of willing Himself. As I noted, that is emanationism and Dr. Farrell is here making the same charge. I am in good company (I has not yet read this section of GHD).

Origen writes:

“Wherefore that simple and wholly intellectual nature can admit of no delay or hesitation in its movements or operations, lest the simplicity of the divine nature should appear to be circumscribed or in some degree hampered by such adjuncts, and lest that which is the beginning of all things should be found composite and differing, and that which ought to be free from all bodily intermixture, in virtue of being the one sole species of Deity, so to speak, should prove, instead of being one, to consist of many things. That mind, moreover, does not require space in order to carry on its movements agreeably to its nature, is certain from observation of our own mind.” (De Principis, I, 6)

Dr. Farrell explains of Origen’s system (in terms that could equally be applied to western Scholasticism):
“Origen’s system is actually this: (1 ) There is one simple deity (2) because this simple deity is simple in the Neoplatonic sense, philosophy and theology are handmaidens (3) because the Deity is simple, there is no distinction between essence, will and activity in It. ( 4) Creatorhood equals Fatherhood, (5) Predestination equals foreknowldge, (6) Justice equals Mercy, (7) because one of the Deity’s operations is being almighty, the creation must be eternal because the world is impossible without God and God is impossible without the world (8) and finally, because operations are the essence (since it is simple) the Persons are thus operations.” (Ibid., 113)

This will be the system and basic argumentation adopted by Arius and Eunomius. As is evident, if God is an absolutely simple essence, distinctions disappear and are not real. For example, just this classic western view is exemplified in the older Catholic Encyclopedia under “God: Simplicity of”:

“It is true that no single predicate is adequate or exhaustive as a description of His infinite perfection, and that we need to employ a multitude of predicates, as if at first sight infinity could be reached by multiplication. But at the same time we recognize that this is not so — being repugnant to the Divine simplicity; and that while truth, goodness, wisdom, holiness and other attributes, as we conceive and define them express perfections that are formally distinct, yet as applied to God they are all ultimately identical in meaning and describe the same ultimate reality — the one infinitely perfect and simple being.”
So justice is Fatherhood is providence is Act/operation is generation/spiration. All are the divine essence, which is eternal. This is absurd. And while certain aspects might be debated, this is what the West generally claims. This is why the Eastern Fathers do make a distinction between the operations of God and His nature. The two cannot be equatedwithout all kinds of erroneous conclusions as outlined above. So the energies or operations of God are really and fully God – truly divine – but not strictly identified with the simple essence. This is as clear as understanding that I, as a person, am not the same as the things I do. If I built a house, one could grasp something of the skill and wisdom (energies) of me as a builder, but you would not know my essence, per se. Likewise the analogia entis doesn’t work in Thomism because it’s intended to tell us about the divine essence. It can do no such thing. It can, however, tell us about the divine persons and that is how it is used by the Easterns. But this distinction should not be assumed to mean “composition” or division anymore than the distinction between nature and person. Westerns admit there is a distinction between nature and person, so a distinction between essence and operation/energy should not be bizarre.

Part 2: Christology

Another way to illustrate these points is to look at what happens in Christology. In my argumentation in the post I did on Rushdoony, several people have sent me questions based on, what I believe, are their own misunderstandings of Christology. Rushdoony’s problem in that article is that he exemplifies the mixed-up nature of Protestant attempts to grasp orthodox Christology as laid out at Ephesus and Councils 5 and 6. Generally Protestants give lip service to these councils in their desire to be straight on Christology, but fumble around on what these councils mean. St. Cyril famously wrote to Nestorius as follows (and as forming part of the corpus of Ephesus):

“We will necessarily add this also. Proclaiming the death, according to the flesh, of the Only-begotten Son of God, that is Jesus Christ, confessing his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension into heaven, we offer the Unbloody Sacrifice in the churches, and so go on to the mystical thanksgivings, and are sanctified, having received his Holy Flesh and the Precious Blood of Christ the Saviour of us all. And not as common flesh do we receive it; God forbid: nor as of a man sanctified and associated with the Word according to the unity of worth, or as having a divine indwelling, but as truly the Life-giving and very flesh of the Word himself. For he is the Life according to his nature as God, and when he became united to his Flesh, he made it also to be Life-giving, as also he said to us: Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood. For we must not think that it is flesh of a man like us (for how can the flesh of man be life-giving by its own nature?) but as having become truly the very own of him who for us both became and was called Son of Man.Besides, what the Gospels say our Saviour said of himself, we do not divide between two hypostases or persons. For neither is he, the one and only Christ, to be thought of as double, although of two (ἐκ δύο) and they diverse, yet he has joined them in an indivisible union, just as everyone knows a man is not double although made up of soul and body, but is one of both. Wherefore when thinking rightly, we transfer the human and the divine to the same person (παρ’ ἑνὸς εἰρῆσθαι).”

The question becomes how is this possible, given that Christ is of two natures? How do we participate in His divine life, given that the divine nature is not accessible to creatures? How does the divinity in Christ raise His fallen humanity, without subsuming it? How is Jesus a single divine Person and not also a human Person? All of these issues are settled in Ephesus and Councils 5 and 6. I leave out Chalcedon only because Protestants have a generic idea of “two natures” but don’t have a conception of how this affects our soteriology and sacramentology. The answer to these questions was solved at Constantinople II and III.

The Sixth Council states in the Definition of Faith:

“And these two natural wills [in Christ] are not contrary the one to the other (God forbid!) as the impious heretics assert, but his human will follows and that not as resisting and reluctant, but rather as subject to his divine and omnipotent will. For it was right that the flesh should be moved but subject to the divine will, according to the most wise Athanasius. For as his flesh is called and is the flesh of God the Word, so also the natural will of his flesh is called and is the proper will of God the Word, as he himself says: “I came down from heaven, not that I might do mine own will but the will of the Father which sent me!” where he calls his own will the will of his flesh, inasmuch as his flesh was also his own. For as his most holy and immaculate animated flesh was not destroyed because it was deified but continued in its own state and nature (ὄρῳ τε καὶ λόγῳ), so also his human will, although deified, was not suppressed, but was rather preserved according to the saying of Gregory Theologus: “His will [i.e., the Saviour’s] is not contrary to God but altogether deified.”

This is explaining how we are deified, because Christology is the pattern for soteriology. Once this becomes clear, it follows that the Eastern norm on these (essence – energy) distinction must be adopted. For one, it’s the dogmatic teaching of these two councils, as well as Pope St. Agatho’s Letter, as well as by theological necessity. The divine ousia is not and cannot be participated in. All agree it is simple (but not absolutely simple) and that for human hypostases to participate in that essence would mean either pantheism, as the divine nature becomes one with creation or that creatures become divine hypostases. Either option is ridiculous and heretical. So how do we become deified? How do we participate in a real theosis and yet retain out creaturehood/human nature?

Just as above with the question of absolute simplicity energies is introduced as the biblical answer to how we know God – that is, via the operations/energies of the divine Persons, so here, the question of how we are saved is by participation in those energies or operations. For a simple biblical example of energy/operation, let’s examine 1 Cor. 12:6. The divine physis/ousia itself cannot be seen or looked upon or manifested or captured or imaged or partaken of or though of, as per Acts 17:29: “Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising.”

But the divine operations or energeia are. 1 Cor. 12:6 reads: “And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all.” In the Greek it is: ”καὶ διαιρέσεις ἐνεργημάτων εἰσίν ὁ δὲ αὐτός ἐστιν θεός ὁ ἐνεργῶν τὰ πάντα ἐν πᾶσιν.” The divine energon, or operations are manifold and can be seen and experienced and participated in.

As Eastern Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky explains in his well-known Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church:

“1. The doctrine of the energies, ineffably distinct from the essence, is the dogmatic basis of the real character of all mystical experience. God, who is inaccessible in His essence, is present in His energies ‘as in a mirror,’ remaining invisible in that which He is; ‘in the same way we are able to see our faces, themselves invisible to us in a glass,’ according to a saying of St. Gregory Palamas. (Sermon on the Presentation of the Holy Virgin in the Temple). Wholly unknowable in His essence, God wholly reveals Himself in His energies, which yet in no way divide His nature into two parts–knowable and unknowable–but signify two different modes of the divine existence, in the essence and outside of the essence.

2. This doctrine makes it possible to understand how the Trinity can remain incommunicable in essence and at the same time come and dwell within us, according to the promise of Christ (John xiv, 23). The presence is not a causal one, such as the divine omnipresence in creation; no more is it a presence according to the very essence–which is by definition incommunicable; it is a mode according to which the Trinity dwells in us by means of that in itself which is communicable–that is to say, by the energies which are common to the three hypostases, or, in other words, by grace–for it is by this name that we know the deifying energies which the Holy Spirit communicates to us. He who has the Spirit, who confers the gift, has at the same time the Son, through whom every gift is transmitted to us; he also has the Father, from whom comes every perfect gift. In receiving the gift–the deifying energies–one receives at the same time the indwelling of the Holy Trinity–inseparable from its natural energies and present in them in a different manner but none the less truly from that in which it is present in its nature.”
So this is how God remains transcendent, yet immanent. This is how we participate in God, but we do not become the divine nature. We remain creatures for all eternity, just as the humanity of Christ was deified, but never loses the properties characteristic of human nature. The meaning of theosis, then, is based upon Christology and can only be made sense of of in terms of the essence – energy distinction, as it is the divine energy in Christ and not the divine nature itself that raises or deifies the humanity. This also means there is no “created” habitus or grace that causally effects the humanity in Christ. The only deifying done is by the divine operation/energy. This means absolute divine simplicity makes no sense in Christological dogma as well. How does an absolutely simple essence Incarnate? How does one of the relations within this absolutely simple essence take on humanity and act in a way the other Persons do not? If ADS is true, what raises or deifies the humanity in Christ – an subsequently us? Created grace? But a creature cannot save us – only divine life. Jesus promised in John 17 to give us the same glory that He shared with the Father before the creation of the world. Is that glory a mere created effect as per Thomism? Is it merely a temporal creation of God given to the elect? Clearly that is not what Jesus shared with the Father before the foundation of the world. Thus we must participate in an actual energy or operation of God – something fully and truly God, but not the divine substance itself.

This is why Pope St. Agatho wrote to the 6th Council as follows regarding the two energies in Christ (based on the Trinitarian energies):

“And we recognize that each one (of the two natures) of the one and the same incarnated, that is, humanated (humanati) Word of God is in him unconfusedly, inseparably and unchangeably, intelligence alone discerning a unity, to avoid the error of confusion. For we equally detest the blasphemy of division and of commixture. For when we confess two natures and two natural wills, and two natural operations (energies) in our one Lord Jesus Christ, we do not assert that they are contrary or opposed one to the other (as those who err from the path of truth and accuse the apostolic tradition of doing. Far be this impiety from the hearts of the faithful!), nor as though separated (per se separated) in two persons or subsistences, but we say that as the same our Lord Jesus Christ has two natures so also he has two natural wills and operations (energies), to wit, the divine and the human: the divine will and operation he has in common with the coessential Father from all eternity: the human, he has received from us, taken with our nature in time. This is the apostolic and evangelic tradition, which the spiritual mother of your most felicitous empire, the Apostolic Church of Christ, holds.”

15 thoughts on “Problems in Thomism – Essence/Energy

  1. Jesus promised in John 17 to give us the same glory that He shared with the Father before the creation of the world. Is that glory a mere created effect as per Thomism? Is it merely a temporal creation of God given to the elect? Clearly that is not what Jesus shared with the Father before the foundation of the world. Thus we must participate in an actual energy or operation of God – something fully and truly God, but not the divine substance itself.

    Show me you are not misrepresenting St Thomas when you call the glory created “as per Thomism”.

  2. So the energies or operations of God are really and fully God – truly divine – but not strictly identified with the simple essence. This is as clear as understanding that I, as a person, am not the same as the things I do. If I built a house, one could grasp something of the skill and wisdom (energies) of me as a builder, but you would not know my essence, per se.

    The entire problem of the Eastern Palamite theology, as well as it’s subtle subversion of the teachings of the Church fathers, becomes quite clear in this single, simple example. If God’s energies/operations are really and fully God – truly divine – then – by your own analogia entis – a house the man builds is also, at least in some way, human. Unless you drift away into a completely relativistic pantheism, saying “Well everything is really everything else, since everything is connected”, this simply cannot be so.

    Don’t get me wrong, I also have a huge bone to pick with Aquinas, and I truly enjoy reading your blog for its clever criticism of his as a starting point where western theology started going downhill. But just as Aquinas with his scholasticism poisoned western thought for centuries to come, Palamas did pretty much the same thing in the East with his mysticism.

      • Why would the effects of God’s actions be God’s actions? That analogy comes from the fathers.

        I don’t understand what are you saying here. The distinction between essence and energy smacks far more of Islamic aristotelianism rooted in Avicenna, than of the teachings of the church fathers. Hardly a coincidence that it appeared in the East as the Byzantine empire was slowly devoured by the Turks.

      • I didn’t understand your original criticism. It sounded like you said pantheism would result. The distinction between essence and energy is taught by the eastern fathers. Islam holds to absolute divine simplicity, like Rome. I think you are confused as to what it means. Further, the 6th council teaches it too, in regard to the distinction in Christ’s two wills and two energies.

  3. My criticism is this: in the example of a man building a house, where does a man end and a house begins? Because one is a human being, and the other is not, even though it certainly contains something of its creator in itself. So if a man-house distinction is applied to essence-energy of God, then essence is something different from energy and therefore energy cannot be completely divine as the essence is. Yet Palamas claims energy of God really is God as much as the essence of God is. But then it means that the energy is an uncreated reality, and there can be no analogy between it and the created world. So the example of man-house cannot really tell us anything about the distinction between essence-energy in God. But then, what exactly is the distinction between essence and energy in God? Such a distinction then cannot be comprehended in any way by us. See the logical problem now?

    And how does this connects with Islam? Well, Islam from it’s beginnings had a big problem in that, rejecting the doctrine of Trinity, it really couldn’t explain how God works in the world. Its theology was fundamentally confused by really a dualistic distinction between what God is, and what it does. Such a distinction, on its own, can never be resolved. So in Islamic theology this brought about an endless discussion of essence vs. attributes, or essence vs. existence or, as Palamas would have it, essence vs. energies. Notice that Aquinas, who draws heavily on Aristotelian Islamic philosophers, also makes the distinction between the essence of God and his operations. Summa I, q. 12. a. 8: “I anwser that the created intellect, in seeing the divine essence, does not see in it all that God does or can do.” So for Aquinas essence is also something different from God’s operations, i.e., God’s energies (though I’m not sure if he really understands what he is rambling about here, as in many other places in his writtings). Really the only difference between him and Palamas is that Palamas maintains that essence is fundamentally unknowable, while for Aquinas it’s obviously energies.

    As for divine simplicity, it is a core teaching of Christianity and the church fathers as well. It’s not something Islam or Rome came about on it’s own.

    • No that is not the distinction. This analogy comes from Nyssa. God creates and the divine Person is not the act of creating (energy), nor the creation. All it means is that the divine essence and Person are not the actions.

      • In Nyssa and other Capadoccians, the only distinction is between persons and essence (hypostases and oussia). The fathers do not speak of energy as a category distinct from persons/essence.

        Aquinas probably says 20 times the essence of God and His actions and operations are isomorphically identified.

        Aquinas say many things and he constantly contradicts himself throughout the Summa. But the view that essence of God and his actions are one and the same is the view of the fathers. Here is what St. Cyril of Alexandria has to say on the matter in his “Dialogues on the Trinity”:

        “For if one is not too poorly endowed with the decency which befits wise men, one will say that the divine being is properly and primarily simple and incomposite; one will not, dear friend, venture to think that it is composed out of nature and energy, as though, in the case of the divine, these are naturally other; one will believe that it exists as entirely one thing with all that it substantially possesses.”

        Btw, he says this exactly after dismissing what you would call Augustinian view of divine operations as created things. That view is certainly wrong, but that doesn’t mean Palamas was right.

      • Just move on dude. You clearly don’t know what you’re talking about. Basil has a whole letter on e/e and Nyssa talks about it consistently in his against Eunomius.

  4. *sigh* Then why was not this distinction of essence-person-energy proclaimed as a dogma, but rather the distinction of Father-Word-Spirit, more commonly known as Holy Trinity?

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