Saint Basil on the Essence/Energy Distinction (Against the Palamites)

Yesterday was the feast of Saint Basil and I forgot to post this.

A while back we had a huge battle royale over the Palamite distinction between God’s essence and energies that went to over 140 comments.

For those just joining the battle, the Eastern Orthodox monk Gregory Palamas taught that the essence of God is distinct from the energies or operations of God and that the latter were multiple, even infinite. The Catholic Church looks askance at this distinction since it undermines the assertion that “God is one” and that He is without parts or division.

The Palamites often appeal to Saint Basil in support of their teaching. However, I recently discovered a great quote from Saint Basil teaching the absolute divine simplicity of God.

“We perceive the operation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be one and the same, in no respect showing differences or variation; from this identity of operation we necessarily infer the unity of nature.”

St Basil, Letters, NPNF 8, 189.7

The point here is that Saint Basil argues from the one operation (energeia) to the oneness of the divine essence (ousia). Notice here that if we were to grant the Palamite error that the operation of God were pluriform, then Saint Basil’s beautiful argument would lead to a conclusion that the divine ousia is pluriform. This would yield a belief in polytheism. For this reason, Catholic theologians (such as Adrian Fortescue) have rejected the Palamite teaching and have even labeled as “polytheistic.”

Consequently, we must hold that the divine essence of God and His divine activity are absolutely simple and one.

Moreover, the Sixth Ecumenical Council dogmatically taught that in Christ there are only two energies/operations/wills, that is, the divine will (in the singular) and the human will (also in the singular). If the divine energy/will were pluriform, then Christ would have several wills. This just isn’t biblical, because Christ has only one divine will and only one human will as confirmed by the Sixth Ecumenical Council and revealed by Christ Himself: “Lord not my will be done, but thy will.”

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  • Thomas Palmieri

    I am not an adherent of the Palamite doctrine, but I am writing to you to inform you that you have not put forth a proper reading of this passage from Basil. For one thing, Basil’s letter to Eustathius is either the source of or a restatement of Gregory of Nyssa’s “On the Holy Trinity,” so it may not represent a writing from the hand of Basil at all, but rather from the hand of Gregory. Be that as it may, the argument advanced in the letter to Eustathius is that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit act as one, and this being so, their nature is one. He does not say that their energeia is one only, for he mentions above the passage you cited: “The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit alike hallow, quicken, enlighten, and comfort. No one will attribute a special and peculiar operation (energeia) of hallowing to the operation (energeia) of the Spirit, after hearing the Savior in the Gospel saying to the Father about His disciples, sanctify them in Your name. In like manner all other operations (energeias) are equally performed, in all who are worthy of them, by the Father and by the Son and by the Holy Spirit; every grace and virtue, guidance, life, consolation, change into the immortal, the passage into freedom and all other good things which come down to man.” The argument put forward is that the identity of a particular energeia in the Father, the Son and the Spirit proves the community of essence. He does not argue that there is but one energeia that is common to the divine persons, but rather that in each particular energeia the energeia of the Father, Son and Spirit is one.
    St. Gregory of Nyssa also says in “On the Holy Trinity”: “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 (energeias), but we are none the more able to learn of his operations (energeias) the nature of Him who works.” The Eastern fathers are enouncing here a principle borrowed from Aristotle, which holds that energeia (activity) reveals essence (nature). That is, what a thing does reveals what it is. But God being infinite, we can never say what he really is, which is beyond our finite capacity.

    The problem for we Western Christians is that the Palamite doctrine goes further than this to say that the energeias are not merely actions of God to which finite intelligences give name but rather existing realities of his nature which somehow differ from His essence, and this seems to establish a kind of plurality in the simple divine nature, which goes against faith. The Cappadocians were attempting to refute the Arians, who held that we can know the divine essence; and inasmuch as we know that the Father is “unbegotten” and the Son is “begotten”, we therefore know that their essences differ, wherefore the Son is not true God, having a different essence than the Father. The Cappadocian fathers refuted them by pointing out that we cannot know the essence of God, which is above our understanding, but we can know his energeias (activities, operations, sometimes ‘energized’ activities and operations, depending upon context), which reach down to us from above. Therefore it remains possible for us to hold that the divine persons are possessed of the same essence, and are hence equally God.
    Again, the Eastern Christians are not always clear on whether the notion of essence relates merely to the category of knowledge or of nature, for they seem to say that the light of God is only the energy of God, but not His nature, and this is unacceptable for Western (i.e. Roman Catholic) Christians, for Exodus 33:18-23 teaches that God’s glory is his face, which is distinguished from the things that come down to us; while St. Paul teaches that in the age to come we shall see God “face to face,” and that we shall know Him even as we are known by Him (1 Cor 13:12). In which case seeing the glory of God, we shall see God as he is (1 Jn 3:2). But the Palamite doctrine seems to deny the Scriptures by saying that we shall never see God in his true nature, but only in his energies. Hence the light of God is not the nature, but merely God’s energized manifestation. Again this creates a division in God which is unacceptable to the Catholic West.
    The East argues that the Western fathers (i.e. Augustine and Aquinas), by not distinguishing the essence from the energies, end up equating the essence of God with all that he does, and introduce necessity into his activity, and raise man above his ‘permitted level of contemplation’, to employ a phrase utilized by ‘Dionysius’ in the Divine Names (1.2).
    Neither tradition, in my opinion, has been able to resolve the paradox that God at one and the same time exists in us in goodness, but outside of creation in His own proper nature, as St. Athanasius said (De Decretis, 3.6).

    • isabel kissinger

      I have a puerile understanding of God.The Nature of God is, He is a Spirit . God has three (3) IDENTITY: I AM, WORD, WISDOM. The three (3) WORK of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. The CHARACTER of God: FATHER, SON, MOTHER and in Them resides ONE HOLY SPIRIT.

      It is just like a person who has a mind, voice, body. When he think, he says, he does.

      • Thomas Palmieri

        I’m not sure what you mean by God having character as Father, Son and Mother. You do not mean to say that the Father and the Mother united to beget the Son? That would make you a gnostic, or a Mormon. On the other hand, the anchoress Julian of Norwich conceived Jesus Christ to be in some sense our spiritual mother, because of his all embracing compassion. I recently tried to explain the concept of the Trinity to a relative of mine who is thinking of entering into the Church, who as a Jehovah’s Witness had a hard time understanding the concept of the Trinity, which I likened to one Mind with Reason and Spirit, three and yet one. So we are not too far away from each other.

        • isabel kissinger

          No, i do not mean that the Father and the Mother united to beget the Son…These ONE CHARACTER of God (Father, Son, Mother), is in Him.

          The Catechism of the Catholic Church, page 72, line 239 ….God’s parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood, which emphasizes God’s immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature. The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in way the first representatives of God for man.

          Please forgive me but this is how puerile my understanding of God is.

    • Roman Catholic

      I find your comment very insightful. I believe Gregory Palamas considered the essence/energy distinction to be more of a formal distinction than a real one. Modern Orthodox, however, tend to treat the distinction as real, which creates a contradiction with the Council of Florence’s definition that the Holy Spirit has His essence from the Father and the Son. Yet this conflict is now a consequence of the hesychast essence/energies theology, which is the more substantive difference.

  • frjohnmorris

    Frankly all that you have shown is that you do not understand St. Gregory Palamas. The accusation that his theology is polytheistic is absurd. The distinction between the Essence and Energies of God allow us to partake of the divine nature (II Peter 1:4) while avoiding falling into pagan like pantheism. The Energies of God are to His Hidden Essence as sunlight is to the sun. The divine Energies flow form the divine Essence. Grace, for example, is an uncreated and fully divine Energy of God that flows directly from His Essence. Thus when we experience grace we have an actual experience of God. St. Gregory Palamas based his theology on the Fathers before him. For example, Saint Basil the Great writes, “the energies are
    numerous and the essence of God simple and what we know when we
    say God is in fact His energies. We do not pressure to approach
    His essence. His energies come down to us, but His essence remains
    beyond our reach.”

    Archpriest John W. Morris, PhD

  • Chris Keller

    This is long after the posting, but it seems apparent that St. Basil meant that because the Godhead acts in a united fashion, that entails a correspondingly united Nature. If you see three beings which all eat, move, and speak rationally, that would demonstrate that they are all three humans, the principle being that things which have the same Energies have the same Nature.

    And just as human nature is singular, despite having many energies, so God appears to have many energies (and we name them with different names–though this may be only from our end, as when God is “patient” to those who repent and “hardening” to those who use the time only to grow more firm in their vice, or when God’s mercy makes one man thankful for the gifts he has received, and another to become more greedy of them; God’s action of the loving preservation of being and nature of all things in existence receives many names from us).

    But the distinction between God’s Nature and Energy is a simple philosophical principle. We know God by His actions, and by “actions” just are meant “Energies”.

  • monk_87

    Although I am Orthodox and prefer Eastern theology I am studying the issues championed by St. Gregory with an open mind. Having said that it seems to me that all St. Basil is saying here is that the Holy Trinity operates with one and the same purpose, and that according to their (the Divine Persons) one and the same nature.