Posted by: Joel | March 12, 2012

The Essence/Energies Distinction (Fr. Stephen Freeman)

The mystery of God’s essence and energies is a distinction within the theology of Holy Orthodoxy that allows us to speak both of how we know God while He remains unknowable (for He is truly God). We do not know Him as an object, ever, for this is of no benefit or significance. We know God by participation. The mystery as defined in Orthodoxy is that God in His essence and in His energies is one. To know Him in His energies is to know Him truly. But He remains unknowable in His essence. It’s a bit like the distinction between immanence and transcendence. To know God in His essence, as Orthodoxy understands the term, would be to actually participate in the essence of God, which would be to become God fully as God alone is God, and this is not possible. The distinction with the energies allows us to speak of true participation.

These sorts of terms are part of the “grammar of theology,” or the “regula fidei.” Such terms do not seek to define (even as the terms “Hypostasis” and “ousia” do not define). They set the guides and parameter for speech and thought so that we may engage and speak of these things in a correct manner. The heart of the essence/energies distinction is to establish that we truly know God (for His energies and essence are one) while God still remains God alone (in His essence). It is not something to be understood so much as a language to be used.

The RC contention that we behold God’s essence in the Beatific Vision does not protect the distinction sufficiently (from the perspective of the Orthodox). Oddly, Orthodoxy holds the possibility of true knowledge of God in this life (through participation in the Divine Energies) in a manner that, as far as I understand, is not embraced in RC theology.

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