Essence – Energies Distinction in the Church Fathers

The distinction between God’s essence and his uncreated energies are found in (but not limited to) the following patristic writers. It is pertinent to note that in these quotes the terms “operation”, “activity”, “work” signify “energy”.

We have taken a selection of quotations from each, these do by no means exhaust the number of quotations from each Father:

St. Athanasius, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Gregory Nazianzus, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Dionysius, St. Sophronius of Jerusalem, St. Maximos the Confessor, St. John of Damascus.


St. Athanasius

For what is contrary to will they (the Arians) see; but what is greater and transcends it has escaped their perception. For as what is beside purpose is contrary to will, so what is according to nature transcends and precedes counselling. A man by counsels builds a house, but by nature he begets a son; and what is in building began to come into being at will, and is external to the maker; but the son is proper offspring of the father’s essence, and is not external to him; wherefore neither does he counsel concerning him, les he appear to counsel about himself. As far then as the Son transcends the creature, by so much does what is by nature transcend the will.” (“Against the Arians,” III.62)
Citation: Athanasius of Alexandria. Four Discourses Against the Arians. Aeterna Press, 2016.

“For the Apostle proclaims the Son to be the own Radiance and Expression, not of the Father’s will, but His Essence Itself, saying, ‘Who being the Radiance of His glory and the Expression of His Subsistence (Hebrews 1:3).’ But if, as we have said before, the Father’s Essence and Subsistence be not from will, neither, as is very plain, is what is proper to the Father’s Subsistence from will; for such as, and so as, that Blessed Subsistence, must also be proper Offspring from It. And accordingly the Father Himself said not, ‘This is the Son originated from MY will,’ nor, ‘the Son whom I have by My favor,’ but simply, ‘My Son,’ and more than that, ‘in whom I am well pleased;’ meaning by this, This is the Son by nature; and in Him is lodged My will about what pleases Me.(“Against the Arians,” III.65)
Citation: Athanasius of Alexandria. Four Discourses Against the Arians. Aeterna Press, 2016

 

St. Cyril of Jerusalem

“The Divine Nature then it is impossible to see with eyes of flesh: but from the works, which are Divine, it is possible to attain to some conception of His power, according to Solomon, who says, ‘For by the greatness and beauty of the creatures proportionably the Maker of them is seen.’ He said not that from the creatures the Maker is seen, but added ‘proportionably.’ For God appears the greater to every man in proportion as he has grasped a larger survey of the creatures: and when his heart is uplifted by that larger survey, he gains withal a greater conception of God.

Would you learn that to comprehend the nature of God is impossible? The Three Children in the furnace of fire, as they hymn the praises of God, say, ‘Blessed are you that beholds the depths, and sits upon the Cherubim.’ Tell me what is the nature of the Cherubim, and then look upon Him who sits upon them. And yet Ezekiel the Prophet even made a description of them, as far as was possible, saying that, ‘every one has four faces,’ one of a man, another of a lion, another of an eagle, and another of a calf; and that each one had six wings , and they had eyes on all sides; and that under each one was a wheel of four sides. Nevertheless though the Prophet makes the explanation, we cannot yet understand it even as we read. But if we cannot understand the throne, which he has described, how shall we be able to comprehend Him who sits thereon, the Invisible and Ineffable God? To scrutinise then the nature of God is impossible: but it is in our power to send up praises of His glory for His works that are seen.” (Catechetical Lectures #9, Ch. 2-3)
Citation: Cyril of Jerusalem. “Catechetical Lecture 9.” Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Translated by Edwin Hamilton Gifford, CHURCH FATHERS: Catechetical Lecture 9 (St. Cyril of Jerusalem), Kevin Knight, 2020, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310109.htm.

“Esaias too, with his majestic voice, says, And the Spirit of God shall rest upon Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and godliness; and the Spirit of the fear of God shall fill Him Isaiah 11:2; signifying that the Spirit is one and undivided, but His operations various.” (Catechetical Lecture #16, Ch. 30)
Citation: Cyril of Jerusalem. “Catechetical Lecture 16.” Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Translated by Edwin Hamilton Gifford, CHURCH FATHERS: Catechetical Lecture 16 (St. Cyril of Jerusalem), Kevin Knight, 2020, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310116.htm.

St. Gregory Nazianzus

“But if we say that God is ‘incorporeal,’ this term neither represents nor contains the divine essence. The same is true of ‘unbegotten,’ ‘beginningless,’ ‘immutable,’ and ‘incorruptible,’ indeed of whatever is said concerning God or of the things around God.” (Oration 28.9)
Citation: Gregory Nazianzen. “Second Theological Oration (Oration 28).” Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Translated by Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, CHURCH FATHERS: Second Theological Oration (Oration 28) (St. Gregory Nazianzen), Kevin Knight, 2020, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310228.htm.

 

St. Basil of Caesarea

“But the divine nature is too exalted to be perceived as objects of enquiry are perceived, and about things which are beyond our knowledge we reason on probable evidence. We are therefore of necessity guided in the investigation of the divine nature by its operations. Suppose we observe the operations of the Father, of the Son, of the Holy Ghost, to be different from one another, we shall then conjecture, from the diversity of the operations that the operating natures are also different. For it is impossible that things which are distinct, as regards their nature, should be associated as regards the form of their operations; fire does not freeze; ice does not warm; difference of natures implies difference of the operations proceeding from them. Grant, then, that we perceive the operation of Father, Son and Holy Ghost to be one and the same, in no respect showing difference or variation; from this identity of operation we necessarily infer the unity of the nature.” (Letter 189.6)
Citation: Basil of Caesarea. “Letter 189.” Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Translated by Blomfield Jackson, CHURCH FATHERS: Letter 189 (St. Basil), Kevin Knight, 2020, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3202189.htm.

“The divine nature, on the other hand, in all the words which are contrived, remains always inexplicable, as I always teach. We have learned that it is beneficent, judicial, righteous, good, and so on; and so have been taught differences of operations. But we are, nevertheless, unable to understand the nature of the operator through our idea of the operations. Let any one give an account of each one of these names, and of the actual nature to which they are applied, and it will be found that the definition will not in both cases be the same. And where the definition is not identical the nature is different. There is, then, a distinction to be observed between the essence, of which no explanatory term has yet been discovered, and the meaning of the names applied to it in reference to some operation or dignity. That there should be no difference in the operations we infer from the community of terms. But, we derive no clear proof of variation in nature, because, as has been said, identity of operations indicates community of nature. If then Godhead be the name of an operation, we say that the Godhead is one, as there is one operation of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; if, however, as is popularly supposed, the name of Godhead indicates nature, then, since we find no variation in the nature, we reasonably define the Holy Trinity to be of one Godhead.” (Letter 189.8)
Citation: Basil of Caesarea. “Letter 189.” Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Translated by Blomfield Jackson, CHURCH FATHERS: Letter 189 (St. Basil), Kevin Knight, 2020, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3202189.htm.

“We say that we know the greatness of God, His power, His wisdom, His goodness, His providence over us, and the justness of His judgment; but not His very essence.” (Letter 234.1)
Citation: Basil of Caesarea. “Letter 234.” Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Translated by Blomfield Jackson, CHURCH FATHERS: Letter 234 (St. Basil), Kevin Knight, 2020, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3202234.htm.

“For he who denies that he knows the essence does not confess himself to be ignorant of God, because our idea of God is gathered from all the attributes which I have enumerated. But God, he (Eunomius) says, is simple, and whatever attribute of Him you have reckoned as knowable is of His essence. But the absurdities involved in this sophism are innumerable. When all these high attributes have been enumerated, are they all names of one essence? And is there the same mutual force in His awfulness and His loving-kindness, His justice and His creative power, His providence and His foreknowledge, and His bestowal of rewards and punishments, His majesty and His providence? In mentioning any one of these do we declare His essence? If they say, yes, let them not ask if we know the essence of God, but let them enquire of us whether we know God to be awful, or just, or merciful. These we confess that we know. If they say that essence is something distinct, let them not put us in the wrong on the score of simplicity. For they confess themselves that there is a distinction between the essence and each one of the attributes enumerated. The operations are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His operations, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His operations come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach.” (Letter 234.1)
Citation: Basil of Caesarea. “Letter 234.” Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Translated by Blomfield Jackson, CHURCH FATHERS: Letter 234 (St. Basil), Kevin Knight, 2020, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3202234.htm.

“Gladly, then, would I scrutinize him (Eunomius) to see if he similarly sticks to this prudence in the case of all that is said about God, or if he does so only in the case of this word (that is, ‘unbegotten’). For if he does not consider anything at all by way of conceptualization so as to avoid the appearance of honoring God with human designations, then he will confess this: that all things attributed to God similarly refer to his substance. But how is it not ridiculous to say that his creative power is his substance? Or that his providence is his substance? Or the same for his knowledge? In other words, how is it not ridiculous to regard every activity of his as his substance? And if all these names converge upon a single meaning, each one has to signify the same meaning as the other, such as is the case with polyonyms, as when we call the same man ‘Simon,’ ‘Peter,’ and ‘Cephas.’ In the same vein, whoever has heard that God does not change will also be lead to his unbegottenness, and whoever has heard that he has no parts will als be brought to his creative power. What is more absurd than this confusion? Each of the names is deprived of its proper signification, and conventions are established that contradict both common usage and the teaching of the Spirit. And yet, when we hear it said about God that, ‘in wisdom he made all things (Psalm 103:24),’ we learn of his creative art. When it is said that, ‘he opens his hand and fills every living thing with delight (Psalm 144:16),’ it is a question of his providence that extends everywhere. When it is said that, ‘he made the darkness his hiding-place (Psalm 17:12),’ we are taught that his nature is invisible. Furthermore, when we hear what was by God himself, ‘As for me, I am and do not change (Malachi 3:6),’ we learn that the divine substance is always the same and unchanging. So, then, how is it not sheer madness to deny that a proper signification underlies each of the names, and to claim in contradiction to their actual meaning that all names mean the same thing as one another.” (Against Eunomius, 1.8)
Citation: St. Basil of Caesarea. Against Eunomius. Translated by Mark DelCogliano and Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, The Catholic University of America Press, 2011.

“Our response to the objection that God will be revealed as composite unless the light is understood as the same thing as unbegotten goes as follows. If we were to understand unbegottenness as part of the substance, there would be room for the argument which claims that which is compounded from different things is composite. But if we were to posit, on the one hand, the light or the life or the good as the substance of God, claiming that the very thing which God is is life as a whole, light as a whole, and good as a whole, while positing, on the other hand, that the life has unbegottenness as a concomitant, then how is the one who is simple in substance not incomposite? For surely the ways of indicating distinctive features will not violate the account of simplicity. Otherwise, all the things said about God will indicate to us that God is incomposite. And so, it seems that if we are going to preserve the notion of simplicity and partlessness, there are two options. Either we will not claim anything about God except that he is unbegotten, and we will refuse to name him ‘invisible,’ ‘incorruptible,’ ‘immutable,’ ‘creator,’ ‘judge’ and all the names we now use to glorify him. Or, if we do admit these names, what will we make of them? Shall we apply all of them to the substance? If so, we will demonstrate not only that he is composite, but also that he is compounded from unlike parts, because different things are signified by each of these names.” (Against Eunomius, 2.29)
Citation: St. Basil of Caesarea. Against Eunomius. Translated by Mark DelCogliano and Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, The Catholic University of America Press, 2011.

“First of all, how is it possible to reason back from created works to substance? This is something which I for my part fail to see. For things which have been made are indicative of power and wisdom and skill, but not the substance itself. Furthermore they do not even necessarily communicate the entire power of the creator, seeing that the artisan can at times not put his entire strength into his activities; rather he frequently attenuates his exertions for the products of his art. But if he were to set his whole power into motion for his product, even in this case it would be his strength that could be measured by means of his products, not his substance that could be comprehended, whatever it may be.” (Against Eunomius, 2.32)
Citation: St. Basil of Caesarea. Against Eunomius. Translated by Mark DelCogliano and Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, The Catholic University of America Press, 2011.

“And His operations, what are they? For majesty ineffable, and for numbers innumerable. How shall we form a conception of what extends beyond the ages? What were His operations before that creation whereof we can conceive? How great the grace which He conferred on creation? What the power exercised by Him over the ages to come? He existed; He pre-existed; He co-existed with the Father and the Son before the ages. It follows that, even if you can conceive of anything beyond the ages, you will find the Spirit yet further above and beyond.” (On the Holy Spirit, 19:49)
Citation: St. Basil the Great. On the Holy Spirit. Translated by Stephen M Hildebrand, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011.

St. Gregory of Nyssa

“The divine nature in and of itself, whatever its essential character, lies beyond our human apprehension. It is unapproachable and inaccessible to human conjectures. There has never been found among men anyone to grasp the ungraspable with the human intelligence, nor has there ever been found a method of comprehending the incomprehensible. For this reason, the great apostle calls his ways ‘unsearchable’ (“Romans 11:33). He means by that that the road which leads to the knowledge of the divine essence cannot be trodden by human reasoning, for as yet none of those who have gone before us on the road have provided us with a trace of how He may be grasped by a knowledge which is above all knowledge. He who by nature is above every nature, He who is both beyond the senses and beyond the mind, is seen and grasped by some other method.

There are many methods of such understanding. So, for example, it is possible by means of the wisdom that can be seen in all things to have some sort of perception of him who made all things in wisdom. In much the same way in human constructions, some perception of the artist may be inferred from looking at his creations, on the assumption that his work displays his art. But it is not the actual nature of the artist that is so revealed, but only the artistry that he has displayed in his work.

In a similar way we may look at the order of creation and so receive an impression of the wisdom not of the nature of him who ordered all things in wisdom (Romans 1:20). Again, if we consider the cause of our own life, and remember that God made us not out of necessity, but out of a good choice, in this way too we can speak of seeing God, becoming aware of his goodness, not of his essence. In a similar way, whatever else raises the mind to a better and nobler conception, each and every one of these we can call knowledge of God, each of these noble ideas bringing God before our eyes. Power, purity, immutability and freedom from the opposite, imprints upon our souls the image of a divine and noble idea.

What has been said displays after a fashion the truth of the Lord, who promised the vision of God to the pure of heart. Nor, again, is Paul a liar when he displays in his own words that he has not seen God nor can see him. For God who is by nature beyond our sight is visible in his activities, being perceived in the characteristics that surround him.” (Homily 6: On the Beatitudes)
Citation: Gregory of Nyssa. “HOMILY 6: ON THE BEATITUDES.” Eclectic Orthodoxy, Fr. Aidan Kimel, May 2014, afkimel.wordpress.com/.

“For if it were possible that the Divine nature should be contemplated in its absolute essence, and that we should find by appearances what is and what is not proper to it, we should surely have no need of other arguments or evidence for the comprehension of the question. But since it is exalted above the understanding of the questioners, and we have to argue from some particular evidence about those things which evade our knowledge, it is absolutely necessary for us to be guided to the investigation of the Divine nature by its operations.” (On the Holy Trinity)
Citation: Gregory of Nyssa. “On the Holy Trinity.” Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Translated by H.A. Wilson, CHURCH FATHERS: On the Holy Trinity (St. Gregory of Nyssa), Kevin Knight, 2020, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2904.htm.

“Thus the identity of operation in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit shows plainly the undistinguishable character of their substance. So that even if the name of Godhead does indicate nature, the community of substance shows that this appellation is properly applied also to the Holy Spirit. But I know not how these makers-up of all sorts of arguments bring the appellation of Godhead to be an indication of nature, as though they had not heard from the Scripture that it is a matter of appointment, in which way nature does not arise. For Moses was appointed as a god of the Egyptians, since He Who gave him the oracles, etc., spoke thus to him, ‘I have given you as a god to Pharaoh (Exodus 7:1).’ Thus the force of the appellation is the indication of some power, either of oversight or of operation. But the Divine nature itself, as it is, remains unexpressed by all the names that are conceived for it, as our doctrine declares. For in learning that He is beneficent, and a judge, good, and just, and all else of the same kind, we learn diversities of His operations, but we are none the more able to learn by our knowledge of His operations the nature of Him Who works. For when one gives a definition of any one of these attributes, and of the nature to which the names are applied, he will not give the same definition of both: and of things of which the definition is different, the nature also is distinct.” (On the Holy Trinity)
Citation: Gregory of Nyssa. “On the Holy Trinity.” Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Translated by H.A. Wilson, CHURCH FATHERS: On the Holy Trinity (St. Gregory of Nyssa), Kevin Knight, 2020, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2904.htm.

“As, then, when we are taught by David that God is ‘a judge,’ or ‘patient,’ we do not learn the Divine essence, but one of the attributes which are contemplated in it, so in this case too when we hear of His being not generated, we do not by this negative predication understand the subject, but are guided as to what we must not think concerning the subject, while what He essentially is remains as much as ever unexplained. So too, when Holy Scripture predicates the other Divine names of Him Who is, and delivers to Moses the Being without a name, it is for him who discloses the Nature of that Being, not to rehearse the attributes of the Being, but by his words to make manifest to us its actual Nature. For every name which you may use is an attribute of the Being, but is not the Being — ‘good,’ ‘ungenerate,’ ‘incorruptible,’ — but to each of these is does not fail to be supplied. Any one, then, who undertakes to give the account of this good Being, of this ungenerate Being, as He is, would speak in vain, if he rehearsed the attributes contemplated in Him, and were silent as to that essence which he undertakes by his words to explain. To be without generation is one of the attributes contemplated in the Being, but the definition of ‘Being’ is one thing, and that of ‘being in some particular way’ is another; and this has so far remained untold and unexplained by the passages cited.” (Against Eunomius, VII.5)
Citation: Gregory of Nyssa. “Against Eunomius.” Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Translated by H.A. Wilson, CHURCH FATHERS: Against Eunomius (St. Gregory of Nyssa), Kevin Knight, 2020, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2904.htm.

“And yet it is plain to every one who has given any attention to the uses of words, that the word incorruption denotes by the privative particle that neither corruption nor birth appertains to God: just as many other words of like formation denote the absence of what is not inherent rather than the presence of what is; e.g. harmless, painless, guileless, undisturbed, passionless, sleepless, undiseased, impossible, unblamable, and the like. For all these terms are truly applicable to God, and furnish a sort of catalogue and muster of evil qualities from which God is separate. Yet the terms employed give no positive account of that to which they are applied. We learn from them what it is not; but what it is, the force of the words does not indicate. For if some one, wishing to describe the nature of man, were to say that it is not lifeless, not insentient, not winged, not four-footed, not amphibious, he would not indicate what it is: he would simply declare what it is not, and he would be no more making untrue statements respecting man than he would be positively defining his subject. In the same way, from the many things which are predicated of the Divine nature, we learn under what conditions we may conceive God as existing, but what He is essentially, such statements do not inform us.” (Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book)
Citation: Gregory of Nyssa. “Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book.” Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Translated by M. Day, CHURCH FATHERS: Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book (St. Gregory of Nyssa), Kevin Knight, 2020, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2904.htm.

“But God is of Himself what also He is believed to be, but He is named, by those who call upon Him, not what He is essentially (for the nature of Him Who alone is is unspeakable), but He receives His appellations from what are believed to be His operations in regard to our life. To take an instance ready to our hand; when we speak of Him as God, we so call Him from regarding Him as overlooking and surveying all things, and seeing through the things that are hidden. But if His essence is prior to His works, and we understand His works by our senses, and express them in words as we are best able, why should we be afraid of calling things by words of later origin than themselves? For if we stay to interpret any of the attributes of God till we understand them, and we understand them only by what His works teach us, and if His power precedes its exercise, and depends on the will of God, while His will resides in the spontaneity of the Divine nature, are we not clearly taught that the words which represent things are of later origin than the things themselves, and that the words which are framed to express the operations of things are reflections of the things themselves? And that this is so, we are clearly taught by Holy Scripture, by the mouth of great David, when, as by certain peculiar and appropriate names, derived from his contemplation of the works of God, he thus speaks of the Divine nature: ‘The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, long-suffering, and of great goodness.’ Now what do these words tell us? Do they indicate His operations, or His nature? No one will say that they indicate anything but His operations. At what time, then, after showing mercy and pity, did God acquire His name from their display? Was it before man’s life began? But who was there to be the object of pity? Was it, then, after sin entered into the world? But sin entered after man. The exercise, therefore, of pity, and the name itself, came after man.” (Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book)
Citation: Gregory of Nyssa. “Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book.” Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Translated by M. Day, CHURCH FATHERS: Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book (St. Gregory of Nyssa), Kevin Knight, 2020, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2904.htm.

“Similarly, says he, our Lord is in respect to Himself what He is essentially, but when named according to the differences of His operations, He has not one appellation in all cases, but takes a different name according to each notion produced in us from the operation.” (Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book)
Citation: Gregory of Nyssa. “Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book.” Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Translated by M. Day, CHURCH FATHERS: Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book (St. Gregory of Nyssa), Kevin Knight, 2020, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2904.htm.

“Well, then, if God did not exist formerly, or if there be a time when He will not exist, He cannot be called either unending or without beginning; and so also neither inalterable, nor incorporeal, nor imperishable, if there is any suspicion of body, or destruction, or alteration with regard to Him. But if it be part of our religion to attribute to Him none of these things, then it is a sacred duty to use of Him names privative of the things abhorrent to His Nature, and to say all that we have so often enumerated already, viz. that He is imperishable, and unending, and ungenerate, and the other terms of that class, where the sense inherent in each only informs us of the privation of that which is obvious to our perception, but does not interpret the actual nature of that which is thus removed from those abhorrent conditions.

What the Deity is not, the signification of these names does point out; but what that further thing, which is not these things, is essentially, remains undivulged. Moreover, even the rest of these names, the sense of which does indicate some position or some state, do not afford that indication of the Divine nature itself, but only of the results of our reverent speculations about it. For when we have concluded generally that no single thing existing, whether an object of sense or of thought, is formed spontaneously or fortuitously, but that everything discoverable in the world is linked to the Being Who transcends all existences, and possesses there the source of its continuance, and we then perceive the beauty and the majesty of the wonderful sights in creation, we thus get from these and such-like marks a new range of thoughts about the Deity, and interpret each one of the thoughts thus arising within us by a special name, following the advice of Wisdom, who says that, ‘by the greatness and beauty of the creatures proportionately the Maker of them is seen (Wisdom 13:5).’ We address therefore as Creator Him Who has made all mortal things, and as Almighty Him Who has compassed so vast a creation, Whose might has been able to realize His wish. When too we perceive the good that is in our own life, we give in accordance with this the name of Good to Him Who is our life’s first cause.

Then also having learned from the Divine writings the incorruptibility of the judgment to come, we therefore call Him Judge and Just, and to sum up in one word, we transfer the thoughts that arise within us about the Divine Being into the mould of a corresponding name; so that there is no appellation given to the Divine Being apart from some distinct intuition about Him. Even the word God (Θεὸς) we understand to have come into usage from the activity of His seeing; for our faith tells us that the Deity is everywhere, and sees (θεασθαι) all things, and penetrates all things, and then we stamp this thought with this name (Θεὸς), guided to it by the Holy Voice. For he who says, ‘O God, attend unto me,’ and, ‘Look, O God,’ and, ‘God knows the secrets of the heart plainly,’ reveals the latent meaning of this word, viz. that Θεὸς is so called from θεασθαι . For there is no difference between saying, ‘Attend unto,’ ‘Look,’ and, ‘See.’ Since, then, the seer must look towards some sight, God is rightly called the Seer of that which is to be seen. We are taught, then, by this word one sectional operation of the Divine Being, though we do not grasp in thought by means of it His substance itself, believing nevertheless that the Divine glory suffers no loss because of our being at a loss for a naturally appropriate name. For this inability to give expression to such unutterable things, while it reflects upon the poverty of our own nature, affords an evidence of God’s glory, teaching us as it does, in the words of the Apostle, that the only name naturally appropriate to God is to believe Him to be, ‘above every name (Philippians 2:9).’ That he transcends every effort of thought, and is far beyond any circumscribing by a name, constitutes a proof to man of His ineffable majesty.” (Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book)
Citation: Gregory of Nyssa. “Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book.” Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Translated by M. Day, CHURCH FATHERS: Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book (St. Gregory of Nyssa), Kevin Knight, 2020, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2904.htm.

“They say that divinity reveals (divine) nature. But we know that the divine nature has no name which signifies it. But if something is said about it either by human convention or by the divine Scriptures, it signifies something about that which surrounds divinity. But the divine nature itself remains unspoken and unuttered; it exceeds all possibility of being revealed by name. So the name divinity shows not the nature of the Spirit, but the power of seeing.” (On the Divinity of the Son and the Spirit)
Citation: St. Gregory Palamas. Dialogue Between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite. Translated by Rein Ferwerda, State University of New York Press.

St. Cyril of Alexandria

Creating belongs to the energy but begetting to the nature. Nature and energy are not identical.” (Thesaurus, 18)
Citation: St. Gregory Palamas. Dialogue Between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite. Translated by Rein Ferwerda, State University of New York Press.

“If what belongs only to God is absolutely also His essence He will be composed for us out of many essences; for there are many things which belong only to Him by nature and to no other being. For He is king and lord and indestructible and invisible and, in addition, innumerable other things which the divine Scriptures say about Him. If, therefore, all things which are with Him lie in the order of essence, why, then, will the simple not be composed.” (Thesaurus, 31)
Citation: St. Gregory Palamas. Dialogue Between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite. Translated by Rein Ferwerda, State University of New York Press.

St. Dionysius the Aeropagite

“For the truth is that everything divine and even everything revealed to us is known only by way of whatever share of them is granted. Their actual nature, what they are ultimately in their own source and ground, is beyond all intellect and all being and all knowledge. When, for instance, we give the name of ‘God’ to that transcendent hiddenness, when we call it ‘life’ or ‘being’ or ‘light’ or ‘Word,’ what our minds lay hold of is in fact nothing other than certain activities apparent to us, activities which deify, cause being, bear life, and give wisdom.” (The Divine Names, 2.7)
Citation: St. Dionysius. The Divine Names. Edited by Paul Rorem. Translated by Colm Luibheid, Paulist Press, 1987.

“And yet what do the theologians mean when they assert that the unstirring God moves and goes out into everything? This is surely something which has to be understood in a way befitting God, and out of reverence for him we must assume that this motion of his does not in any way signify a change of place, a variation, an alteration, a turning, a movement in space either straight or in a circular fashion or in a way compounded of both. Nor is this motion to be imagined as occurring in the mind, in the soul, or in respect of the nature of God. What is signified, rather, is thar God brings everything into being, that he sustains them, that he exercises all manner of providence over them, that he is present to all of them, that he embraces all of them in a way which no mind can grasp, and that from providing for everything, arise countless processions and activities. And yet, in some mode conforming to what befits both God and reason, one has to predicate movement of the immutable God. One must understand the straight movement of God to mean the unswerving procession of his activities, the coming-to-be of all things from him.” (The Divine Names, 9.9)
Citation: St. Dionysius. The Divine Names. Edited by Paul Rorem. Translated by Colm Luibheid, Paulist Press, 1987.

 

St. Sophronius of Jerusalem

“Counting these men as nothing, we know that each activity of each nature (I mean the essential and natural and corresponding activity) proceeds indivisibly from each essence and nature according to its innate natural and essential quality, and (we know) the inseparable and at the same time unconfused cooperation of the other essence brought in with it. For it is this which makes the difference in the activities in Christ, just as the existence of the natures (makes the difference) in the natures. For Godhead and humanity are not identical with regard to the quality which is naturally inherent in each, although they met together inexpressibly in one hypostasis and were composed without confusion into one person, and produced the one and the same Christ and Son for us through the mutual, hypostatic, combination and composition.” (Synodal Letter to the Sixth Ecumenical Council, 2.3.10).”
Citation: St. Sophronius of Jerusalem. Sophronius of Jerusalem and Seventh-Century Heresy: The Synodical Letter and Other Documents. Edited by Henry Chadwick. Translated by Pauline Allen, Oxford University Press, 2009.

We therefore confess each natural activity of each essence and nature from which the unconfused union in Christ came about for us and brought about the on Christ and Son, wholly God, the same believed to be wholly a human being. (We do this) in order not to confuse the natures which are untied without confusion, if as is the fact the natures are revealed from the activities and only from them, according to those who are experts in such matters, and the difference of the essences is always understood from the differences in the activities. Even so we teach that every utterance and activity, whether divine and heavenly or human and earthly, proceeds from one and the same Christ and Son and his one, composite, and single hypostasis. He was incarnate God the Word, who procured naturally from himself in an inseparable and unconfused manner each activity according to his own natures: according to his divine nature on the one hand, in accordance with which he was consubstantial with the Father, (he produced) his divine and unutterable activity; while according to his human nature on the other hand, in accordance with which the same one also remained consubstantial with us human beings, (he produced) his human and mundane activity, (each activity being) congenial to and befitting each nature. And he does not allow any of those who see him to be scandalized, on the grounds that the same one, who performs this and that naturally, is not God and a human being. By effecting both actions, the one and the same Christ and Son stops up the foul effluence of Nestorius. (For neither, as we have said, do we worship two Christs and Sons in him, as if it is they who effect this and that.) By showing, on the other hand, that what is proper to each nature remains unconfused after the union, and that the same one (sc. Christ) likewise produces each activity, revealed by the natural principle of the natures, and expressing its own nature naturally, from which it springs forth inseparably and naturally and gushes forth according to its essence, he burns to ashes the sprout Eutyches, which loves confusion.” (Synodal Letter to the Sixth Ecumenical Council, 2.3.12).”
Citation: St. Sophronius of Jerusalem. Sophronius of Jerusalem and Seventh-Century Heresy: The Synodical Letter and Other Documents. Edited by Henry Chadwick. Translated by Pauline Allen, Oxford University Press, 2009.

St. Maximos the Confessor

St. Maximos the Confessor

“I think that the teacher addressed these words to those who, believing that the condition of being ‘unbegotten’ is the essence of the Father (the Eunomians), perversely teach that the Son is dissimilar to the Father. In this way, he teaches them to understand what is proper on the basis of things that are similar, so that, being led by the truth to true religion, they might together with us readily confess that the word ‘unbegotten’ signifies only that the Father is without origin – themselves realizing that, were they to persist in asserting their doctrine that the ‘unbegotten’ is the essence of God, they would be completely forced to maintain that the ‘incorporeal,’ and the ‘without beginning,’ and the ‘immortal,’ and the ‘immutable,’ and the ‘incorruptible,’ are also by necessity the essence of God, along with whatever else we say that God is by means of alpha-privative negations on account of His transcendence. And being forced to be consistent with their own principles, they would be exposed and convicted for introducing many essences of God, and not one; and to speak more strictly and truly, they would be found to be suffering from the malady of Greek polytheism, and, being ashamed to admit such impiety, they would surely abandon their madness even if they had no wish to do so. For the alpha-privatives or negations that are contemplated around something are not the thing itself (around which they are contemplated), otherwise they would assuredly be among the items signifying what this thing is, as being that very same thing, and not signifying what the thing is not. If this were the case, then negations would prove to be the definitions of the things of which they are predicated, which is absurd and impossible. For the definitions of things are not based on what does not constitute their existence, but on those items from which the things exist, items which expand and explain the summary designation of a thing, which is its name. Therefore, absolutely nothing of what is said ‘about God or the things around God’ can ever be the essence of God, for not even a positive affirmation (which is uniquely appropriate to God alone), devoid of all relation, and detached from the energy around a thing, is able to manifest that thing according to what it is in its essence.” (Ambiguum 16)
Citation: St. Maximos the Confessor, and Nicholas Constans. On Difficulties in the Church Fathers – The Ambigua. Edited by Jan M Ziolkowski, 1st ed., vol. 1 2, Harvard University Press, 2014.

“Put simply, all life, immortality, simplicity, immutability, infinity, and as many things as substantively are contemplated with reference to him, which very things are also works of God, yet not beginning temporally. For non-being never was prior to virtue, no to any of the other things lisited, although participating beings in themselves have begun to exit temporally from them. For all virtue is unoriginated, not having time prior to itself, since it is the kind of reality eternally having God as the most exclusive author of its existence.

God incomprehensibly eludes infinitely all beings, both participating and participated. For anything particular that has the term ‘existence’ for a predicate is a work of God. Although the former has begun to exist temporally, the latter has by grace been implanted in originated beings, as if a kind of implanted potentiality, loudly proclaiming that God is in all beings.” (200 Chapters on Theology, 1.48 – 1.49)
Citation: St. Maximus the Confessor, and Luis Joshua Sales. Two Hundred Chapters on Theology. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2015.

“The divine apostle Paul said he knew the knowledge of the Word ‘in part.’ And the great evangelist John said he had seen his glory. ‘For we have seen,’ he says, ‘his glory, glory as of the Only-begotten by the Father, full of grace and truth.’ And perhaps the holy Paul said he knew the knowledge of the Word of God in part, for he is only known to a limited degree on the basis of his activities. For knowledge concerning his substance and person in himself is to everyone alike, both to angels and humans, inaccessible, since it is known to no one in any way.” (200 Chapters on Theology, 2.76)
Citation: St. Maximus the Confessor, and Luis Joshua Sales. Two Hundred Chapters on Theology. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2015.

“‘From those things’ that pertain to God’s essence, that is, from the essence itself, it has never at any time been known what God is. For to have even an idea of what God is is impossible and completely beyond the reach of all creation, whether visible or invisible. Moreover, ‘from those things that are around’ the essence, we learn only that God exists, and when these things are contemplated properly and piously, God yields Himself up to those who gaze upon Him. But all the things that ‘around’ the essence do not disclose what the essence itself is, but what it is not, such as not being created, not having a beginning, not being finite, not being corporeal, and any other such things that are around the essence, and indicate what it is not, but not what it is. And this is true even of the principles of providence and judgment, according to which the universe is wisely governed, and with which the harmonious contemplation of nature around God is said to take place, which shows only by analogy that its Creator exists. To be sure, negations stand in opposition to affirmations, becoming amicably interwoven with each other around God, each entering into and reciprocally complementing the other. Thus the negative statements indicate not that the Divine is something, but rather what it is not, and these are in compliance with the affirmations around that something (which the Divine is not). And the affirmations, which indicate solely that the Divine exists, but not in anyway what it is, are united with the negations around that something (which the Divine is not). To the extent that the negations and affirmations are taken in relation to each other, they express opposition through antithesis, but when they are referred to God, they reveal their intimate relation by the manner in which the two extremes mutually condition each other.” (Ambiguum 34)
Citation: St. Maximos the Confessor, and Nicholas Constans. On Difficulties in the Church Fathers – The Ambigua. Edited by Jan M Ziolkowski, 1st ed., vol. 2 2, Harvard University Press, 2014.

St. John of Damascus

“Furthermore, how can that which is not locally contained be moved? Therefore, only the Divinity is unmoved, and by His immovability He moves all things. Consequently, one can only answer that the Divinity is without a body. All this, however, is by no means indicative of His essence – no more than is the fact of His being unbegotten, without beginning, immutable, and incorruptible, or any of those other things which are affirmed of God or about Him. These do not show what He is, but, rather, what He is not. One who would declare the essence of something must explain what it is, but not what it is not. However, as regards what God is, it is impossible to say what He is in His essence, so it is better to discuss Him by abstraction from all things whatsoever.” (On the Orthodox Faith, I.4)
Citation: St. John of Damascus, and Frederic H Chase. On the Orthodox Faith. Ex Fontibus Company, 2015.

“The Divinity, then, is limitless and incomprehensible, and then His limitlessness and incomprehensibility is all that can be understood about Him. All that we state affirmatively about God does not show His nature, but only what relates to His nature. And, if you should ever speak of good, or justice, or wisdom, or something else of the sort, you will not be describing the nature of God, but only things relating to His nature.” (On the Orthodox Faith,  I.4)
Citation: St. John of Damascus, and Frederic H Chase. On the Orthodox Faith. Ex Fontibus Company, 2015.

“The Divinity is simple and uncompounded. But that which is composed of several different things is compounded. Consequently, should we say that the increate, unoriginate, incorporeal, immortal, eternal, good, creative, and the like are essential differences in God, then, since He is composed of so many things, He will not be simple but compounded, which is impious to the last degree. Therefore, one should not suppose that any one of these things which are affirmed of God is indicative of what He is in essence. Rather, they show either what He is not, or some relation to some one of those things that are contrasted with HIm, or something of those things which are consequential to His nature or operation.” (On the Orthodox Faith, I.9)
Citation: St. John of Damascus, and Frederic H Chase. On the Orthodox Faith. Ex Fontibus Company, 2015.

“The names ‘Good,’ ‘Just,’ ‘Holy,’ and the like are consequential to His nature and are not indicative of the essence itself. Those of ‘Lord,’ ‘King,’ and the like are indicative of a relation to things that are contrasted with Him. Thus, of those that are lorded over He is called Lord, of those that are ruled over He is called King, of those that are created He is called Creator, and of those that are shepherded He is called Shepherd.

All the aforesaid names are to be taken as applying in common, in the same manner, simply, indivisibly, and unitedly to the whole Godhead. But the names ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ and ‘Spirit,’ ‘Uncaused’ and ‘Caused,’ ‘Unbegotten’ and ‘Begotten’ and ‘Proceeding’ are to be taken as applying in a different way, because they declare not the essence, but the mutual relationship and manner of existence. Even when we have perceived these things and have been guided by them to the Divine Essence, we still do not grasp the essence itself, but only things relating to it. Just as, although we may know that the soul is without body, without quantity, and without shape, even then we have not grasped its essence. And in the same way, if we happen to know that the body is white or black, we have not comprehended the essence of the body, but only something related to it.” (On the Orthodox Faith, I.9-10)
Citation: St. John of Damascus, and Frederic H Chase. On the Orthodox Faith. Ex Fontibus Company, 2015.

“Now we also say that in our Lord Jesus Christ there are two operations. For, in so far as He was God and consubstantial with the Father, like the Father He had the divine operation; in so far as He was made man and consubstantial with us, He had the operation of the human nature. However, one must know that operation is one thing, what is operative is another, which is operated another, and still another the operator. Operation, then, is the efficacious and substantial motion of the nature. And that which is operative is the nature from which the operation proceeds. That which is operated is the effect of the operation. And the operator is the one who performs the operation; the person, that is.” (On the Orthodox Faith, III.15)
Citation: St. John of Damascus, and Frederic H Chase. On the Orthodox Faith. Ex Fontibus Company, 2015.

One thought on “Essence – Energies Distinction in the Church Fathers

  1. Pingback: Essence – Energies Distinction in the Church Fathers – Part II – Ubi Petrus Ibi Ecclesia

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