Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries About God


The Energies of God

by Megas L. Farandos, Athens University Professor.


From the book: «The Orthodox Teaching on God» Athens 1985. Chapter 7, pages 423 – 478.


1. General

Energies comprise the third “difference” in God, according to the terminology of Saint Gregory of Nyssa (“Against Eunomius”, A’ I’ 107). The Orthodox teaching on the energies of God essentially constitutes a reliable evolvement of the New Testament witness regarding the reality of the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. This God does not manifest Himself only as a trinity of hypostases - that is, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He also manifests Himself as the One who has (the congenital and not acquired) fullness of all good things - of “power, glory, wisdom, philanthropy” etc.; in other words, “all the good things that the Son has are the Father’s, and everything that the Father has, is made visible in the Son” (Gregory of Nyssa, “Against Eunomius”, A’ I’ 126).  This means that God is not only a triple-hypostasis reality, but that He also has essence and “circum-essence”, which are essential virtues and distinctive features. God is a reality that exists, as well as one that possesses. He is a reality “in person”, who possesses the fullness of life and its bounties, in other words, “the true life” (Gregory of Nyssa, “Against Eunomius”, A’ I’ 126). “For, just as the Father has life within Him, thus did He also give the Son to have life within Him” (John 5:26).  As we have already said, God is a reality “in person”, Who has life (or, as otherwise called, “essence”) and Who also has the fullness of all the good things peripherally related to this essence, that is, the “circum-essence”.

These “differences” of God that exist within Himself are apparent in the Holy Bible.  The Bible does not make mention of the three Hypostases only - that is, of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – but also of a multitude of qualities that the divine hypostases have and transmit; for example the power, the wisdom, the love, the grace of God etc., through which qualities God acts and transmits to the world all good things (otherwise known as “charismas” (Greek=gifts)).  We must not construe these qualities as being a neutral or impersonal reality, existing in parallel to the hypostases within God. We should preferably see them in an ”inter-embracing” with the divine hypostases, or, rather, as a sublime unity, identity and coincidence, in the following context:  “The triunal God IS life, truth, love, wisdom,” etc. That is, by coinciding the “being” and the “possessing” in the person of God, the Bible often represents God not only as a reality “in person”, but also as an impersonal reality, -that is, as “something Divine” - thus denoting the grace, the justice, the wisdom etc. that are manifested upon mankind.  Besides, the very Bible itself distinguishes between the divine hypostases and their qualities – something that gives a legal right to have a theology on the qualities or energies of God. Even the theology of the West has not omitted to include chapters on the “attributes” of God in its Dogmatics, which by Orthodox Theology however are seen as unusual and extremely “human-prone” portrayals of the Triadic God.  Orthodox dogmatics however has never developed any teaching on God’s “attributes”. Any relative chapters that may perhaps be found in Orthodox Dogmatics have originated from the influence of western theology.

As mentioned previously, the “personal” and the “impersonal” element – or, rather, (as we shall see further along) – the “hypostatized” element are interwoven and inter-embraced in God in such a way, that God at times appears as “the One acting within us” (Phil. 2:13) and elsewhere as “His energy, that is potentially acting within me” (Colos. 1:29)

However, the Bible at times relates the divine hypostases to their qualities, as in the familiar verse of 1 Cor. 1:24: “Christ : the power of God and the wisdom of God”.  The fact that Christ Himself is not that wisdom per se, but that He contains within Himself the wisdom of God, is educed from other relevant Scriptural passages, such as Coloss.2:3, where mention is made of “Christ, in Whom all the treasures of wisdom and of knowledge are hidden”.

The theology of the first Christian centuries did not preoccupy itself particularly with the matter of divine energies and their association to the divine hypostases, instead, it conveyed in its works the relative testimonies of the Bible, more or less without suspecting that a problem existed.  [Compare with article «Energeia» by Å. Fascher, in the “Reallexikon fur Antike und Christentum”, V (1962), 4-51]. A formulated teaching on the energies of God did not exist  in the theology of the ancient Church. (P. Martin Strohm had a different opinion, in his article: “Die Lehre von der Energeia” (Gottes. Eine dogmengeschichtliche Betrachtung, in the volume Kyrios, VIII (1968), p. 63 onward).

Whenever the ancient ecclesiastic authors made use of the excerpt 1 Cor. 1:24 (and they used it frequently), they aspired to one thing only: to show that the Son is not a creation, but that He in fact belongs to the Divine reality. However, they never posed the question, nor did they confront the problem, regarding the association between hypostases and energies in God.  This problem had not as yet appeared.  What had preoccupied the theologians of the three first Christian centuries was mainly the divinity of the Son and His association to God the Father.  The problem of an association between the divine hypostases and energies appeared particularly during the era of the major Cappadocian Fathers who, after the divinity of the Son had been formally secured by the 1st Ecumenical Synod in Nice, found themselves in the need to confront the equally huge heresy (as compared to the Arian one) of Eunomius, who maintained precisely this:  that the Son is the work of God’s energy, and that the Spirit is the work of the Son’s energy [ (Gregory of Nyssa), “Against Eunomius”, A’ I’ 123: «the Son is the work of the precedent essence’s energy, and the Spirit is likewise another work of that work». Similarly on p.72 onwards ].  In this way, he was alienating the Son from the essence of the Father and the Spirit from the essence of the Son, by accepting three beings just as Arius had, except that each being was supposedly of “another essence”. [ (Gregory of Nyssa), “Against Eunomius”, A I p.92, according to which, Eunomius maintained the following with regard to the three hypostases: “instead, the essences are rent apart from each other, disintegrated into a sort of isolated nature”. And on p.91: Eunomius accepted that “the Son is different in nature and dissimilar to the essence of God and thus in every way does not partake of the Father through any natural familiarity”.]

In view of the introduction of the term “energy” by the heretic Eunomius in his speculations regarding God, the major Cappadocian Fathers were forced to focus on the term “energy” in more depth and to determine the relationship between this divine aspect and the essence and the hypostases of God.  Thus, all the Cappadocian Fathers (that is, Gregory the Theologian, Basil the Great and John the Chrysostom) came to refer to the energies of God as “divine attributes”; but the one who preoccupied himself especially with the matter of divine energies was saint Gregory of Nyssa in his series of works “against Eunomius”, whom we shall mainly follow here.  However, it is not a true assertion that Gregory of Nyssa was the one who introduced the teaching on the energies of God, given that the main theologian on divine energies is in fact Basil the Great.  Gregory of Nyssa merely developed this teaching of his brother more systematically.  The subject of divine energies constituted both an opportune and a central chapter during the time of the major Cappadocian theologians, and for some time thereafter. This is testified, not only by the works of these theologians, but also by the texts of the great theologians who followed, whose texts were attributed to predominant theological and ecclesiastic personalities so that they could claim a greater prestige.  Such personalities were: Dionysios the Areopagite, Athanasius the Great, Basil the Great, Justin, etc.. (Check against Library of Hellenic Fathers, 4, 11 onwards, 36, 11 onwards). It is in these works – which quite possibly came from the same school – that the subject of divine energies is posed most vividly.

Consequently, the conflict regarding the divine and uncreated energies which appeared during the 14th century between the Latin monk Varlaam and his student Akindynus on the one hand and saint Gregory Palamas on the other, was not the first instance where the issue of divine energies was brought up.  On the contrary, it was rather a rekindling of the very ancient quarrel regarding the Holy Trinity – naturally now in a new form and a different variation thereof.  Gregory Palamas had undertaken the heavy burden of completing and systematizing the teaching on energies, based on the overall Orthodox dogmatic tradition which was precedent to his time. The existence, therefore, of divine energies – which are distinguished apart from the essence and the hypostases of God – constitutes a teaching that has existed from the time of the major Hellenic Fathers. And this is the teaching that is recognized, at least by Orthodox Tradition.

Prior to the Cappadocian Fathers, theology was rife with commentaries on divine energies; nevertheless, the issue of how they related to the divine hypostases was never brought up.  The authors of this period made references to the divine energies, without concerning themselves with whether the energies related to the divine hypostases or if they comprised a separate kind of reality in God, or in what kind of relationship they were to the essence and the hypostases of God.  One such example is Makarios the Egyptian, who, in his homilies made frequent references to divine energies and to other meanings that relate to energies (for example, Grace).  Makarios the Egyptian would present divine energies personified, as though acting on their own [ for example in one place he says: “in various ways does Grace mingle with them and in many ways does it guide the soul” (Library of Hellenic Fathers 41, 252) ] and elsewhere, he presents the divine energies as though dependent on the divine hypostases [ example: “the Lord gives Grace, when He comes and dwells within us” (Library of Hellenic Fathers 42, 87)] and elsewhere he presents them as “one” energy [example:  “…by the three hypostases of the one godhood…” (Library of Hellenic Fathers 42, 144) etc.]  This is why Gregory Palamas rightly acted, by never (or at least rarely) making mention of any authors prior to the Cappadocian theologians, when consolidating the teaching on divine energies.

The sole exception in this case was Athanasius the Great, who albeit not making any special mention on divine energies, nevertheless speaks very clearly on discerning not only between the three hypostases, but also between nature and its volition (compare with Athanasius’ “Against Arians” B’ 2,3, C’ 62, Library of Hellenic Fathers 30, 180-181, also “On the Nicene Synod”, 31, Library of Hellenic Fathers 31, 171). Thus, according to Athanasius the Great, the “sequels” and the works of nature and those of volition are entirely different things.  That which is “born” belongs to nature, and that which is “made” belongs to volition.

Without any actual discerning between divine nature and its volition, it would not be possible to discern between the “products” of nature and the “products” of God’s volition, that is, between the Son and the Spirit on the one hand and the works of nature on the other.  Volition, however, does not relate to nature, but differs from it and is discernible.  It is “the energy and the power of nature” (Patrologia Graeca C’, 127).  The “difference” between nature and volition in God constitutes one of the foremost arguments in Orthodox theology, whenever it supports the true distinction (between divine essence and its energy) that it professes.  [ Basil the Great (MB), “Against Eunomius” B’ 32, Library of Hellenic Fathers 52, 216-217 ]. Volition is not an essence; it is something “instrumental to the essence” (“On the Holy Spirit”, H’21, Library of Hellenic Fathers 52, 248). Similarly, Cyril of Alexandria:  “to make belongs to energy, whereas to give birth belongs to nature. Nature and energy are not the same thing” (“Treasures” 18, Patrologia Graeca 75, 312C).  Also, (Athanasius the Great, pseudepigraphed), “Dialogue on the Trinity”, Library of Hellenic Fathers 36, 48, 49, 70-73.  An extremely in-depth, philosophical-theological analysis of the “difference” between essence and volition is made by the unknown author of the texts which have been attributed to the apologete Justin: “Christian Questions addressed to Hellenes” C’1, Library of Hellenic Fathers 4, 160 onwards; also John the Damascene, in: “Precise edition of the Orthodox Faith”, I 8, published by B. Kotter, 1973, 18 onwards.  Finally, also according to Gregory Palamas: “energy is the volition of nature” (C’ 53; compare with B’ 167).

However, the theology on the existence of divine energies, which are truly discerned from the divine essence and the hypostases, is based exclusively on the Oros of the 4th and 5th Ecumenical Synods, where mention is made of the two natures and the two volitions and the two energies of Jesus Christ – that is, the divine and the human (compare to the Oros of the 4th, 5th and 6th Ecumenical Synods, in the work “Monuments” by John Karmiris, 1 (1960), pp.175, 185-200, 222-224). This was expressed by saint John the Damascene as follows: “Thus, when referring to the one, “god-human” energy of Christ, we understand it as implying the two energies of His two natures, that is, the divine energy of His godhood, and the human energy of His humanity”. (compare with John the Damascene, ref. III 19, B. Kotter 1973, 162. Similarly, pseudep. Athanasius the Great, “Sermon on the Annunciation”.. 6  Library of Hellenic Fathers 36, 209).

All the above have all been brought up in order to avoid the heretics, who “have mixed things together and have drawn into the same place the essence and the energy of the Only-begotten One” (Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius B’ I, 331). Therefore, when expounding the present chapter on the energies of God, without neglecting the remaining related witnesses of Orthodox dogmatic tradition, we should firstly base ourselves on the two shapers of the Orthodox teaching on divine energies, that is, on Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Palamas.


Translation by A. N.

Article published in English on: 6-10-2007.

Last update: 6-10-2007.