The essence–energies distinction is an Eastern Orthodox theological
concept which states that there is a distinction between the essence
(ousia) and the energies (energeia) of God. It was formulated by
Gregory Palamas of
Thessaloniki (1296-1359), as part of his defense of
the Athonite monastic practice of hesychasmos[note 1] against the
charge of heresy brought by the humanist scholar and theologian
Barlaam of Calabria.
Orthodox theologians generally regard this distinction as a real
distinction, and not just a conceptual distinction. Historically,
Western Christian thought has tended to reject the essence–energies
distinction as real in the case of God, characterizing the view as a
heretical introduction of an unacceptable division in the Trinity and
suggestive of polytheism.
1 Historical background
2 Orthodox views
2.1 Essence and energy
2.2 Distinction between essence and energy
2.2.1 Real distinction
2.2.2 Modern interpretation
2.3 Orthodox criticism of Western theology
3 Roman Catholic perspectives
4 Protestant views
4.1 Kierkegaard and the relationship to existentialism
5 See also
9 External links
See also: Potentiality and actuality
The Essence-Energy distinction was formulated by
Gregory Palamas of
Thessaloniki (1296-1359), as part of his defense of the Athonite
monastic practice of hesychasmos, the mystical exercise of "stillness"
to facilitate ceaseless inner prayer and noetic contemplation of God,
against the charge of heresy brought by the humanist scholar and
theologian Barlaam of Calabria. According to
The Ultimate Reality and Meaning of the Palamite theology consists of
the distinction between God’s Essence and Energy. This is a way of
expressing the idea that the transcendent
God remains eternally hidden
in His Essence, but at the same time the
God also seeks to communicate
and The Distinction between God’s Essence and Energy unite Himself
with us personally through His Energy.
The mystagogical teachings of heyschasm were approved in the Orthodox
Church by a series of local Hesychast councils in the 14th century,
and Gregory's commemoration during the liturgical season of Great Lent
is seen as an extension of the Sunday of Orthodoxy.
Essence and energy
Eastern Orthodox theology
Eastern Orthodox theology God's essence is called ousia, "all that
subsists by itself and which has not its being in another", and is
distinct from his energies (energeia in Greek, actus in Latin) or
activities as actualized in the world.
The ousia of
God is. The essence, being, nature and
God as taught in Eastern
Christianity is uncreated, and
cannot be comprehended in words. According to Lossky, God's ousia is
"that which finds no existence or subsistence in another or any other
thing". God's ousia has no necessity or subsistence that needs or
is dependent on anything other than itself.
It is the energies of
God that enable us to experience something of
the Divine, at first through sensory perception and then later
intuitively or noetically. As St
John Damascene states, "all that we
say positively of
God manifests not his nature but the things about
Distinction between essence and energy
According to Fr. John Romanides, Palamas considers the distinction
between God's essence and his energies to be a "real distinction".
Romanides distinguishes this "real distinction" from the Thomistic
"virtual distinction" and the Scotist "formal distinction".
Romanides suspects that Barlaam accepted a "formal distinction"
between God's essence and his energies. Other writers agree that
Palamas views the distinction between the divine essence and the
divine energies as a "real"
According to Lossky, if we deny the real distinction between essence
and energy, we cannot fix any very clear borderline between the
procession of the divine persons (as existences and or realities of
God) and the creation of the world: both the one and the other will be
equally acts of the divine nature (strictly uncreated from uncreated).
The being and the action(s) of
God then would appear identical,
leading to the teaching of Pantheism.
A few scholars argue against describing Palamas's essence-energies
God as a "real" distinction. Orthodox philosophical
David Bentley Hart expresses doubt "that Palamas ever
intended to suggest a real distinction between God's essence and
energies". G. Philips argues that Palamas's essence-energies
distinction is not an "ontological" distinction but, rather, analogous
to a "formal distinction" in the Scotist sense of the term.
According to Dominican Catholic theological historian Fr. Aidan
Nichols, Palamas's essence-energies distinction is not a mere "formal"
distinction. By a "formal" distinction, Nichols means a distinction
merely "demanded by the limited operating capacities of human
According to Anna N. Williams's study of Palamas, which is more recent
than Bentley's and Philips's, in two passages (only) Palamas
explicitly says God's energies are "as constitutively and
ontologically distinct from the essence as are the three Hypostases",
and in one place he makes explicit his view, repeatedly implied
elsewhere, that the essence and the energies are not the same; but
Williams contends that not even in these passages did Palamas intend
to argue for an "ontological or fully real distinction", and that the
interpretation of his teaching by certain polemical modern disciples
of his is false.
Orthodox criticism of Western theology
See also: Eastern Orthodox – Roman Catholic theological differences
Eastern Orthodox theologians have criticized Western theology, and
especially the traditional scholastic claim that
God is actus purus,
for its alleged incompatibility with the essence-energies distinction.
Christos Yannaras writes, "The West confuses God's essence with his
energy, regarding the energy as a property of the divine essence and
interpreting the latter as "pure energy" (actus purus)" According
to George C. Papademetriou, the essence-energies distinction "is
contrary to the Western confusion of the uncreated essence with the
uncreated energies and this is by the claim that
God is Actus
Roman Catholic perspectives
Roman Catholic Church
Roman Catholic Church distinguishes between doctrine, which is
single and must be accepted by Roman Catholics, and theological
elaborations of doctrine, about which Catholics may legitimately
disagree. With respect to the Eastern and Western theological
Roman Catholic Church
Roman Catholic Church recognizes that, at times, one
tradition may "come nearer to a full appreciation of some aspects of a
mystery of revelation than the other, or [express] it to better
advantage." In these situations, the Church views the various
theological expressions "often as mutually complementary rather than
According to Meyendorff, from Palamas's time until the twentieth
century, Roman Catholic theologians[who?] generally rejected the idea
that there is in
God a real essence-energies distinction. In their
view, a real distinction between the essence and the energies of God
contradicted the teaching of the First Council of Nicaea on divine
unity. Catholic theologian
Ludwig Ott held that an absence of real
distinction between the attributes of
God and God's essence is a dogma
of the Roman Catholic Church.
In contrast, Jürgen Kuhlmann argues that the Roman Catholic Church
Palamism to be heretical, adding that Palamas did not
consider that the distinction between essence and energies in
God composite. According to Kuhlmann, "the denial of a real
distinction between essence and energies is not an article of Catholic
According to Meyendorff, the later twentieth century saw a change in
the attitude of Roman Catholic theologians to Palamas, a
"rehabilitation" of him that has led to increasing parts of the
Western Church considering him a saint, even if uncanonized. Some
Western scholars maintain that there is no conflict between the
teaching of Palamas and Roman Catholic thought on the distinction.
According to G. Philips, the essence-energies distinction of Palamas
is "a typical example of a perfectly admissible theological pluralism"
that is compatible with the Roman Catholic magisterium. Jeffrey D.
Finch claims that "the future of East-West rapprochement appears to be
overcoming the modern polemics of neo-scholasticism and
neo-Palamism". Some Western theologians have incorporated the
essence-energies distinction into their own thinking.
Kierkegaard and the relationship to existentialism
See also: Christian existentialism
The Danish Lutheran philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, widely considered
the father of existentialism, expressed (pseudonymously as John
Climacus) in Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical
Fragments an approach to
God which holds that the Father's hypostasis
(existence) has logical primacy over his ousia (essence or substance).
Hence the teaching that the core of existentialist philosophy can be
understood as the maxim, "existence before essence." This has caused
many Western observers to see
Eastern Orthodox Christian theology
Eastern Orthodox Christian theology as
existentialistic (since the Essence–Energies distinction also
somewhat holds the view). This also accounts for other
existentialistic works such as Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from
Underground. In the case of Dostoevsky, his existentialist outlook
would have drawn from his Russian Orthodox faith, but there is no
record of Dostoevsky (and the Eastern Orthodox church in general)
being exposed to or influenced by Kierkegaard's philosophical works.
Deification (theosis) and synergy
Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite
^ The mystical exercise of "stillness" to facilitate ceasless inner
prayer and noetic contemplation of God.
^ a b "accusing
Gregory Palamas of Messalianism" – Antonio
Carile, Η Θεσσαλονίκη ως κέντρο Ορθοδόξου
θεολογίας -προοπτικές στη σημερινή
Thessaloniki 2000, pp. 131–140, (English translation
provided by the Apostoliki Diakonia of the Church of Greece).
^ a b Notes on the Palamite Controversy and Related Topics by John S.
Romanides, The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Volume VI, Number 2,
Winter, 1960–61. Published by the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox
Theological School Press, Brookline, Massachusetts.
^ a b Nichols, Aidan (1995). Light from the East: Authors and Themes
in Orthodox Theology, Part 4. Sheed and Ward. p. 50.
^ a b c "No doubt the leaders of the party held aloof from these
vulgar practices of the more ignorant monks, but on the other hand
they scattered broadcast perilous theological theories. Palamas taught
that by asceticism one could attain a corporal, i.e. a sense view, or
perception, of the Divinity. He also held that in
God there was a real
distinction between the Divine Essence and Its attributes, and he
identified grace as one of the Divine propria making it something
uncreated and infinite. These monstrous errors were denounced by the
Calabrian Barlaam, by Nicephorus Gregoras, and by Acthyndinus. The
conflict began in 1338 and ended only in 1368, with the solemn
canonization of Palamas and the official recognition of his heresies.
He was declared the 'holy doctor' and 'one of the greatest among the
Fathers of the Church', and his writings were proclaimed 'the
infallible guide of the Christian Faith'. Thirty years of incessant
controversy and discordant councils ended with a resurrection of
polytheism" (Simon Vailhé, "Greek Church" in Catholic Encyclopedia
(New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909)
John Meyendorff (editor),
Gregory Palamas – The Triads, p. xi.
Paulist Press, 1983, ISBN 978-0809124473, although that attitude
has never been universally prevalent in the Catholic Church and has
been even more widely criticised in the catholic theology for the last
century (see section 3 of this article). Retrieved on 12 September
^ catholic-church.org, The Distinction between God’s Essence and
Energy: Gregory Palamas’ idea of Ultimate Reality and Meaning
^ Fortescue, Adrian (1910), Hesychasm, VII, New York: Robert Appleton
Company, retrieved 2008-02-03
^ Aristotle East and West by David Bradshaw, p. 91, 95 Cambridge
University Press (27 December 2004) ISBN 978-0-521-82865-9
^ a b The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, by Vladimir Lossky,
SVS Press, 1997, p. 50–55, ISBN 0-913836-31-1, (James Clarke
& Co. Ltd., 1991. ISBN 0-227-67919-9)
^ The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, by Vladimir Lossky, SVS
Press, 1997. ISBN 0-913836-31-1 (James Clarke & Co. Ltd.,
1991, p. 73, ISBN 0-227-67919-9)
^ a b c John S. Romanides, Notes on the Palamite Controversy and
Related Topics. Orthodoxinfo.com. Retrieved on 13 September 2014.
^ Joseph Pohle, Dogmatic Theology, "The Essence of
God in Relation to
His Attributes", vol. 1, p. 146
^ Erwin Fabhlbusch, The Encyclopedia of Christianity, vol. 4, p. 13,
ISBN 978-0802824165. Eerdmans. Retrieved on 13 September 2014.
John Meyendorff (1979) Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and
Doctrinal Themes, p. 59. Fordham University Press,
ISBN 978-0823209675. Retrieved on 13 September 2014.
^ John Farrelly (2005) The Trinity: Rediscovering the Central
Christian Mystery, Rowman & Littlefield. p. 108.
ISBN 978-0742532267. Retrieved on 13 September 2014.
^ Cistercian Studies, vol. 7 (1990), Cistercian Publications, p. 258.
Books.google.com. Retrieved on 13 September 2014.
^ Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 73,
77. St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1976 ISBN 978-0913836316.
Retrieved on 13 September 2014.
^ Gabriel Bunge, The Rublev Trinity, p. 75. St. Vladimir's Seminary
Press, 1 January 2007, ISBN 978-0881413106, Retrieved on 13
^ Karl Rahner, Encyclopedia of Theology: A Concise Sacramentum Mundi,
p. 391. A&C Black, 1975, ISBN 978-0860120063. Retrieved on 13
^ "If we deny the real distinction between essence and energy, we
cannot fix any very clear borderline between the procession of the
divine persons and the creation of the world: both the one and the
other will be equally acts of divine nature. The being and the action
God would then appear to be identical and as having the same
character of necessity, as is observed by St Mark of Ephesus
(fifteenth century). We must then distinguish in
God His nature, which
is one; and three hypostases; and the uncreated energy which proceeds
from and manifests forth the nature from which it is inseparable. If
we participate in
God in His energies, according to the measure of our
capacity, this does not mean that in His procession ad extra
not manifest Himself fully.
God is in no way diminished in His
energies; He is wholly present in each ray of His divinity." The
Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, by Vladimir Lossky, SVS
Press, 1997, pp. 73–75 (ISBN 0-913836-31-1) James Clarke &
Co. Ltd., 1991. (ISBN 0-227-67919-9)
^ David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 204, Eerdmans,
2004, ISBN 978-0802829214. Retrieved on 13 September 2014.
^ a b c d e f Michael J. Christensen, Jeffery A. Wittung (editors),
Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of
Deificiation in the Christian Traditions (Associated University
Presses 2007 ISBN 0-8386-4111-3), p. 243–244, Fairleigh
Dickinson Univ Press, 2007 ISBN 978-0838641118. Retrieved on 13
^ Christos Yannaras,
Orthodoxy and the West: Hellenic Self-Identity in
the Modern Age (Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2006), p. 36.
^ George C. Papademetriou, Introduction to St.
Gregory Palamas (Holy
Cross Orthodox Press, 2004), p. 61.
^ "UnitatisRedintegratio". Archived from the original on 6 March 2013.
In the study of revelation East and West have followed different
methods, and have developed differently their understanding and
confession of God's truth. It is hardly surprising, then, if from time
to time one tradition has come nearer to a full appreciation of some
aspects of a mystery of revelation than the other, or has expressed it
to better advantage. In such cases, these various theological
expressions are to be considered often as mutually complementary
rather than conflicting. A concrete example of the application
of this principle is the separate presentation in the 1912 Catholic
Encyclopedia article on the Blessed Trinity of the Church's doctrine
on the Trinity as interpreted in Greek theology and in Latin theology,
without denigrating either interpretation.
^ a b
John Meyendorff (editor),
Gregory Palamas – The Triads, p. xi.
Paulist Press, 1983, ISBN 978-0809124473. Retrieved on 12
^ "In distinguishing between
God and His attributes, one is going
against a doctrine of the faith: 'The Divine Attributes are really
identical among themselves and with the Divine Essence' (De fide). The
reason lies in the absolute simplicity of God. The acceptance of a
real distinction (distinctio realis) would lead to acceptance of a
composition in God, and with that to a dissolution of the Godhead. In
the year 1148, a Synod at Rheims, in the presence of Pope Eugene III,
condemned, on the instance of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the doctrine
of Gilbert of Poitiers, who, according to the accusation of his
opponents, posited a real difference between Deus and Divinitas, so
that there would result a quaternity in
God (Three Persons plus
Godhead). This teaching, which is not obvious in Gilbert's writings,
was rejected at the Council of Rheims (1148) in the presence of Pope
Eugene III (D. 389 Archived 20 January 2011 at the Wayback Machine. et
seq.)" (James Bastible (editor)
^ Dr Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p.28, Tan Books and
Publishers, 1960, Retrieved 12 September 2014)
^ Catherine Mowry LaCugna,
God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life,
p. 200. HarperSanFrancisco, 1991, ISBN 9780060649128. Retrieved
on 12 September 2014.
^ Kallistos Ware Oxford Companion to Christian Thought; (Oxford
University Press 2000 ISBN 0-19-860024-0), p. 186. Retrieved on
21 January 2012.
^ The encyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 5 By Erwin Fahlbusch p.
Eerdmans Publishing, 2008, ISBN 978-0802824172. Retrieved on
21 January 2012.
Vladimir Lossky The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, SVS
Press, 1997. (ISBN 0-913836-31-1) James Clarke & Co. Ltd.,
1991. (ISBN 0-227-67919-9) Google books
David Bradshaw Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division
of Christendom Cambridge University Press, 2004
ISBN 0-521-82865-1, ISBN 978-0-521-82865-9 Google books
Theoria, Prayer and Knowledge by Dr M.C. Steenberg Theology and
Patristics University of Oxford
"Orthodox Psychotherapy" by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
Excerpt from "Byzantine Theology, Historical trends and doctrinal
themes" by John Meyendorff
Partial copy of V. Lossky's Chapter in Mystical Theology of the
Eastern Church dedicated to the Essence and Energies distinction
International Conference on the Philosophy and Theology of St Gregory
Palamas, 7-15 March 2012, with links to on line material from the
Ierodiakonou, Katerina; Bydén, Börje. "Byzantine Philosophy". In
Zalta, Edward N. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Christian theology by tradition
Assumption of Mary
Protestant ecclesiology (Branch theory)
Priesthood of all believers
Arminian / Wesleyan
Conditional preservation of the saints
Theology of the Cross
Five solae (Sola fide
Soli Deo gloria
Baptism with the Holy Spirit