Essence-Energies distinction

Essence-Energies distinction

Historical context

The Energies of God are a central principle of theology in the Eastern Orthodox Church, understood by the orthodox Fathers of the Church, and most famously formulated by Gregory Palamas, defending hesychast practice involving the vision of a "Divine Light" against charges of heresy brought by Barlaam of Calabria. In support of his understanding of ancient tradition, Palamas argued that conflating "nature" and "things pertaining to nature" would make a Christian fall into heresy.

Basic principles

The principle is that God's essence (ousia) is distinct from his energies (energeia) or activities in the world, and it is the energies that enable us to experience something of the Divine. These energies are "unbegotten" or "uncreated". These energies can not be created or destroyed. They are unbegotten or uncreated, because they are a natural by-product of something which is beyond existence. Orthodox theology holds that while humans can never know God's "Essence" and that direct experience of God would simply obliterate us (much as Moses could not survive seeing God's face), God's "Energies" can be directly experienced (as Moses could see God's back and live). These energies are considered to be uncreated in nature. Unlike the realities [Vladimir Lossky The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, SVS Press, 1997.] , of the Trinity such as being the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit, the energies of God are not considered to be unique to a specific hypostasis of the Trinity. Instead, they are common to all three.

The presence of the energies is not to be taken as denial of the philosophical simplicity of God. Therefore, when speaking of God, it is acceptable within Eastern Orthodoxy to speak of his energies as God. These would include kataphatic or positive statements of God like the list of St Paul's energies of God. God being love, faith and hope and knowledge (see 1 Cor. 13:2 - 13:13). [Vladimir Lossky The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church pg 81] As is also the case of Gregory of Palamas that God is grace and deifying illumination. [ Vladimir Lossky The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church pg 70]

In the life of the believer

The important theological and soteriological distinction remains that people experience God through his energies, not his essence. Traditionally, the energies have been experienced as light, such as the light of Mount Tabor that appeared at the Transfiguration (called photimos). Orthodox tradition likewise holds that this light may be seen during prayer (Hesychasm) by particularly devout individuals, such as the saints. In addition, it is considered to be eschatological in that it is also considered to be the "Light of the Age to Come" or the "Kingdom of Heaven" which is the Christ.

Catholic perspectives

Catholic philosopher and blogger Dr. Michael Liccione argues that the Essence-Energies Distinction, as expounded by St. Gregory Palamas, is true and is compatible with the Catholic dogma of absolute divine simplicity according to the definition given at the Fourth Council of the Lateran and the First Vatican Council. Dr. Liccione says that Divine simplicity and the distinction between the Divine Essence and the Divine Energies would be contradictory if Divine Essence is taken "to mean God as "what He eternally is" because "God is "actus purus", and thus has no unrealized potentialities." However, if we define God's essence as what "He necessarily is "apart from" what He does," then God's "essence is incommunicable" and communication would necessitate Divine actions, or Energies. Thus there is a real distinction between God's Essence, what "He necessarily is apart from what He does," and His Energies, "God as what He eternally does." [cite web
last = Liccione
first = Dr. Michael
title = Essence/energies, at last
work = Sacramentum Vitae
date = 2006-11
url =
accessdate = 2008-02-04

This latter-day treatment contrasts sharply with the polemical assessments in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, in which Adrian Fortescue charges Palamas with heresy and "monstrous errors" [Citation
last = Fortescue
first = Adrian
title = Hesychasm
publisher = Robert Appleton Company
year = 1910
location = New York
volume = VII
url =
accessdate = 2008-02-03.
] and S. Vailhé characterizes Hesychasm as a "no more than a crude form of auto-suggestion"Citation
last = Vailhé
first = S.
title = Greek Church
publisher = Robert Appleton Company
year = 1909
location = New York
volume = VI
url =
accessdate = 2008-02-03.
] and calls the theology of Palamas a "resurrection of polytheism."


'We ought at all times to wait for the enlightenment that comes from above before we speak with a faith energized by love; for the illumination which will enable us to speak. For there is nothing so destitute as a mind philosophising about God, when it is without Him'." Of "Spiritual Knowledge" Discourse number 7 Philokalia volume 1 pg 254 — St Diadochos of Photiki

See also

*Gregory Palamas
*Vladimir Lossky
*Archimandrite Sophrony
*Father John Meyendorff
*Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite
*Uncreated Light



*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)

External links

* [,_Prayer,_and_Vision 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]

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