Question 14: Further on the “Essence-Energy" distinction in St. Gregory Palamas


Further on the “Essence-Energy" distinction in St. Gregory Palamas  


The Essence-Energy or Energies distinction is not, in fact, philosophical but an ascetic one. 

The energy of God is single but when we speak of it in the plural, we do so in reference to the many and various ways by which God Himself - the grace of God - is active and involved in the life of His creature; to how we experience God’s creative, sustaining, providential and sanctifying presence in the world. 

God Himself - not by His divine essence, but by means of His “natural” or “essential” divine energy, which is “undividedly divided” (so, energies in the plural; cf. the divine logoi in Maxinus the Confessor, on the cosmological plane) - penetrates every particle of the universe and is wholly present in His world: He fills all things with Himself, He is in all things, but all things are not God. 

Thus, the distinction is neither emanationism nor pantheistic. 

The purpose of the distinction is to preserve the utter transcendence of God, on the one hand, whilst affirming direct and unmediated experience of Him, on the other, even in this present life. The chief means by which union and communion with God is attained is by the grace of God and prayer.

We cannot know or even approach God in His essence, because this would signify participation and identity with His very being. The Three Members of the Holy Trinity alone know the essence of God, inasmuch as each of them is fully and perfectly God: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. 

Human beings have been created in the image of God, in order to grow into His likeness - and this is referred to as theosis (deification) - which means that we have been fashioned with the capacity to contain the very life of God. 

The life of God, divine grace, His glory, kingdom (rule), love, peace, mercy, light, power, brilliance, judgment, and so forth - are all names descriptive of His operation (energy/energies) and manifestation in our world. 

We have been called to become heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ - children by adoption. This means that we have been called to become “gods by grace” and to live the very life of God the Holy Trinity. 

But the distinction between the Giver of life and the creature remains: God alone is the God, and so the One to whom it behoves us to give thanks (eucharisia) is the Father without beginning, His only-begotten and consubstantial Son and Word, together with the all-good, holy and life-creating Spirit. 

So to recap, in specific reference to your question, the energy of God is indeed one and single. But we creatures experience the single “life” of God in different ways (and we give different names to the different ways by which God is experienced), but the energy of God is indeed one and single. Once again, the distinction is not a conceptual one, but experiential (cf. the final chapter in Dionysius the Areopagite’s Mystical Theology).

For further information, please see my Notes in Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (2022 rev. ed.), esp. nn. 66, 100, 103, 117, and 299; but also The Transfiguration of Christ in Greek Patristic Literature: From Irenaeus of Lyons to Gregory Palamas (2022), passim.