The Essence-Energy Distinction. How Do We Know God?

How do we know God? How do we experience Him? How is God both paradoxically completely unknowable and entirely knowable at the same time? It is one thing to know of Him, another to know Him as St. Silouan the Athonite rightly states. By the grace of God I will attempt to outline a complicated topic in the simplest way possible to render an answer to these questions which is found in the essence-energy distinction. This distinction is a doctrine exclusive to Orthodox Christianity which I believe is the only viable catalyst in explaining the paradoxes mentioned above. I will seek to explain this, cite evidence for it from both the Bible itself and the Saints, while expanding on the role of the Transfiguration in our knowing God. I pray in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit that the right words be written here and that it is edifying to the person reading this to benefit them however God wills it. Amen.

What Is The Essence-Energy Distinction?

God’s essence is distinct from His energies, His essence is unapproachable and unknowable while His energies are actively experienced and knowable. “The more a man becomes perfect with respect to God, the more he follows after Him. But in the age of truth, God will show him His face, although not His essence. For however much the righteous enter into the divine vision of Him, they behold an enigma of His vision, like an image that is seen through a mirror, but yonder they behold the revelation of the truth.” – St. Isaac The Syrian, Homily 48, page 365. His energies are uncreated energies, in the sense they are not simply effects He created for us to experience, they are uncreated in that these energies are Him and a direct experience of Him. On the contrary, we cannot have a direct experience of His essence for this is beyond all human comprehension. Thus lies the paradox, to where St. John Climacus writes we cannot fully understand this mystery with human ears. It’s not just a question of what is God if we fully comprehend everything about Him? But what is God is we know nothing about Him? The essence-energy distinction is a true transcendence that solves both of these ends of the spectrum.

God is present, in both His essence and energies, the only difference is how each are communicable to us. Those that would affirm God’s energies are created and only His essence is uncreated err, for as St. Gregory Palamas says, “Either all the divine powers are unoriginate, or none! If you say that only one of them is uncreated, you expel the others from the realm of the uncreated; and if you declare that all are created, you must also reject this single uncreated one. For such a falsehood is self contradictory and inconsistent with itself.” If every divine energy is created, then Christ’s energies (both His divine and human will) originated from the created, and if He only has one energy (from the created) that necessitates He only had one nature and is therefore created Himself and not God. This means you’re either forfeiting Christ’s humanity or His divinity (but especially His divinity), both of which are emphatically mistaken. If we acknowledge both essence and energy are uncreated, this problem does not arise.

“Each then of the affirmations about God should be thought of as signifying not what He is in essence, but either something that it is impossible to make plain, or some relation to some of those things which are contrasts or some of those things that follow the nature, or an energy.– St. John of Damascus (5).

On the opposite end, we should not view the energies of God the same as His very essence, or the view that God is identical to each of His properties. If this is so, then each of his properties is identical with each of his other properties, so God has only one property. God is of course three persons but one in essence in the Trinity, all having one will (essence) but all having multiple operations (energies), thus like the Trinity, essence-energy is the same paradox. For example, we know it wasn’t the Father who became incarnate in the flesh and was crucified on the cross, it was the Son. To hold God’s essence and energy are identical, means that also the Father and the Holy Spirit were crucified since all of God’s properties (operations) would be solely identical. This boils God down to Atheistic argumentation of “God died on the cross so your God is dead.” Furthermore, if each of God’s properties are a property, then it concludes God Himself is a property, diluting God down no longer into the Person of Christ but to an abstract object or concept.

The most important aspect this topic relates to is that of Theosis. We are called to participate in the divine nature as 2 Peter 1:4 indicates, but this deification is according to God by the energies, not the essence. If we were to participate according to the essence, the contrast between God and man would be completely destroyed. If God was only essence, there is no possibility of uniting with Him, and if we entertain the notion that it would be possible, it would make us each God Himself by essence too which we know is surely impossible as none of us escape things like physical death.

So thus, Theosis is our striving to be within God in a similar way the Holy Spirit lives within us in the sacraments, to be fellow workers with God by His grace. We seek to dwell in Him and He seeks to dwell in us, in a truly unfeigned love and unity. And as each of us struggles towards this, we hope to experience illumination by the same light the apostles witnessed during the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ on Mt. Tabor. This event is significant in showing the divinity of Christ but also reveals to us the possibility of Theosis through Him. I will expand on this more near the end of the article.

Essence Energy Distinction In Scripture

This distinction is found in the biblical texts, albeit easily glossed over by many. Let’s look at numerous examples such as Revelation 19:11-12, “And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and He that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He doth judge and make war. His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns, and He had a name written, that no man knew, but He Himself.” Having a name written that no one knew but Himself is an indication of the incomprehensibility of God’s essence. (3). The next verse says “and His named is called The Word of God.” We know the Word of God is Jesus Christ, how does God have a name no man knows yet references Himself in a name almost all men know as Christ? This confirms the paradox of unknowable and knowable in the essence energy distinction.

John 1:18, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” Yet Isaiah 6:1 says, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne…” How can no one see God but Isaiah sees God? No one can see God’s essence, but we can see His energies. We could also infer that Isaiah sees Christ and not the Father, for in John 6:46 he states, “No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only He has seen the Father.” Jesus Christ’s incarnation in the flesh makes Him the visible image of God, this would at least make sense how paradoxically no one has seen God (the Father) but we see Christ who is God (the Son).

Exodus 33:20 is further proof that we cannot see God’s essence lest we would perish immediately, “But He said, ‘You cannot see My face; for no man can see My face and live.” As St. John Chrysostom states, Christ is one in essence with the Father and therefore fully sees and knows the Father’s essence, this is why John in the previous paragraph emphasizes how only Christ, the Son of God, has seen the Father.

2 Peter 1:4, “By which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.” This does not mean we as humans become divine by nature ourselves, it means we participate in God’s energies such as glory, love, life, virtue, etc. If we participated in God’s essence, the distinction between God and man would be abolished. (4). We become God in emulation by grace in a theosis sense, not in the apotheosis sense that we literally become God ourselves. This is an inversion from the New Age Movement and Satan, if you want to read more of how the New Age is a direct inversion of Orthodox Christianity specifically, click here.

How Do We Know God?

St. Gregory of Nyssa gives us a template when he says the peak of knowledge is “darkness where understanding cannot reach,” and also, “luminous darkness.” He’s referring to the story of Moses as Moses climbs higher to the top of the mountain he’s also climbing higher into the heights of understanding. The higher he gets up the mountain, the further he is able to see, and the more he is able to see. Just as the more knowledge we obtain the further we are able to ‘see’ so-to-speak. But eventually he reaches a point where he cannot see anything in total darkness, his senses can’t articulate a descriptive form of knowledge. In this darkness he is paradoxically illumined because all that’s left is the experience of God, not just the knowledge of Him. Just as we ourselves must strive to understand the place that is beyond understanding.

“Moses’ vision of God began with light. Afterwards, God spoke to him in a cloud. But when Moses rose higher and became more perfect, he saw God in darkness. The contemplation of God is not affected by sight or hearing. Nor is it comprehended by any of the customary perceptions of the mind at its highest level. “For no eye has seen nor has any ear heard nor does it belong to those things that usually enter into the heart of man.” Man must wash from his understanding every opinion derived from some perception and withdraw himself from his normal way of thinking, that is, with his sense perceptions and his interpretive mind, which are, as it were, wedded to our nature. When Moses was so purified, then he assaults the mountain.” – St. Gregory of Nyssa (6).

The implication is not that knowledge, our senses, or our bodies are bad for they of course were all given to us by God, but without faith they are limited. Our senses are transformed in faith when we commune with God, so each of us must ascend the mountain of spiritual life so that we too may experience this ‘darkness’ and experience God. While St. Gregory of Nyssa speaks of experiencing God in darkness, St. Gregory Palamas speaks of it by light. For both of them, the ultimate point to be made was that you can intimately behold God, and in that intimacy be changed—whether it means you can see light that you could not see before or whether it means that in darkness you perceive things that you could not see in the light (7).

The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ is our example of deification. He has shown us the way to Theosis just as He ascended into heaven first as the example to show us our way there through Him. St. Gregory Palamas states the vision of God is not solely an intellectual understanding but our own interior participation in the Holy Spirit, to strive to become reunited with God in a complete transfiguration of the whole person (2). The Transfiguration is not simply some outlying event in the life of Jesus Christ, it is the eternal paradigm of the vision of God and the Transfiguration of the entire cosmos itself.

Although Christ is the subject of the event of the Transfiguration, the divine uncreated light is of all three persons of the Holy Trinity. It is believed our savior will return in this same glory during His Second Coming, with His divinity triumphing over the flesh not in a defeat of the body but in overcoming its corporeal opacity making it a glowing vehicle of spirit (2). It’s distinctive to note that it is the disciples who are changed into something new at the Transfiguration, not Christ. His willingness to take on our human nature had the effect of healing and transforming it. The Transfiguration was the revelation to us of His divinized human nature: of which is the example to carry our cross towards, of which is the potential for each and every one of us to be transformed like our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sources: 1) St Isaac The Syrian, Homily 48, page 365, Holy Transfiguration Monastery 2nd Edition, 2011. 2) St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads. Paulist Press, 1983. 3) Archbishop Averky Taushev, The Apocalypse – St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1998. 4) The Orthodox Study Bible, page 1691. 5) St. John of Damascus – On The Orthodox Faith. 6) St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses. 7) Hieromonk Irenei Steenberg

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