A real distinction between the essence (ousia) and the energies (energeia) of God is a central principle of Eastern Orthodox theology. Eastern Orthodox theology regards this distinction as more than a mere conceptual distinction. This doctrine is most closely identified with Gregory Palamas, who formulated it as part of his defense of the practice of Hesychasm against the charge of heresy brought by Barlaam of Calabria. These teachings of Palamas were made into dogma in the Eastern Orthodox church by the Hesychast councils.
Historically, Western Christianity has tended to reject the essence-energies distinction as real in the case of God, characterizing the view as a heretical introduction of an unacceptable division in the Trinity and suggestive of polytheism. Further, the associated practice of hesychasm used to achieve theosis was characterized as “magic”. More recently, some Roman Catholic thinkers have taken a positive view of Palamas’s teachings, including how he understood the essence-energies distinction, arguing that it does not represent an insurmountable theological division between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
According to John Romanides, Palamas considers the distinction between God’s essence and his energies to be a “real distinction”. Romanides distinguishes this “real distinction” from the Thomistic “virtual distinction” and the Scotist “formal distinction”. Romanides suspects that Barlaam accepted a “formal distinction” between God’s essence and his energies.)
Many writers agree that Palamas views the distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies as a “real” distinction. A few scholars argue against describing Palamas’s essence-energies distinction in God as a “real” distinction. For example, David Bentley Hart expresses doubt “that Palamas ever intended to suggest a real distinction between God’s essence and energies”.
According to Aidan Nichols, Palamas’s essence-energies distinction is not a mere “formal” distinction. By a “formal” distinction, Nichols means a distinction merely “demanded by the limited operating capacities of human minds”.
G. Philips argues that Palamas’s essence-energies distinction is not an “ontological” distinction but, rather, analogous to a “formal distinction” in the Scotist sense of the term.
According to Anglican theologian Anna N. Williams’s study of Palamas, which is more recent than Bentley’s and Philips’s, in two passages (only) Palamas explicitly says God’s energies are “as constitutively and ontologically distinct from the essence as are the three Hypostases”, and in one place he makes explicit his view, repeatedly implied elsewhere, that the essence and the energies are not the same; but Williams contends that not even in these passages did Palamas intend to argue for an “ontological or fully real distinction”, and that the interpretation of his teaching by certain polemical modern disciples of his is false.
Western theologians admit no real distinction in God other than that between the three divine Hypostases or Persons. Neither between God’s essence and the three Persons of the Trinity, nor between God’s essence and his energies, do they admit a real distinction, but only a distinction that has a basis in reality or a formal distinction.
Philosophers differentiate between various kinds of distinction. A real distinction is drawn between genuinely separable things, each of which is capable of existing independently of all others. For Descartes, the existence of such a distinction between mind and body was an important part of his philosophy. A merely mental or conceptual distinction is drawn wholly within our minds between aspects that in fact apply to a single thing. Other kinds of distinction include the virtual distinction (a conceptual distinction that, however, has a basis in reality) and the formal distinction.
Robert E. Sinkewicz describes Palamas’ ultimate perspective as being the “preservation of the reality of God’s self-revelation and the divine economy of creation and salvation.”
The concept of God’s essence in Eastern Orthodox theology is called (ousia) and is distinct from his energies (energeia in Greek
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, actus in Latin) or activities as actualised in the world. The ousia of God is God as God is. It is the energies of God that enable us to experience something of the Divine, at first through sensory perception and then later intuitively or noetically. The essence, being, nature and substance (ousia) of God is taught in Eastern Christianity as uncreated and incomprehensible. God’s ousia is defined as “that which finds no existence or subsistence in another or any other thing”. God’s ousia is beyond all states of (nous) consciousness and unconsciousness, being and non-being (like being dead or anesthetized), beyond something and beyond nothing, beyond existence and non-existence. God’s ousia has not in necessity or subsistence needing or having dependence on anything other than itself. God’s ousia as uncreated is therefore incomprehensible to created beings such as human beings. Therefore God in essence is superior to all forms of ontology (metaphysics). The source, origin of God’s ousia or incomprehensibility is the Father hypostasis of the Trinity, One God in One Father. God’s energies are “unbegotten” or “uncreated” just like the existences of God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) both God’s existences and energies are experience-able or comprehensible. God’s ousia is uncreatedness, beyond existence, beyond non-existence, God’s hyper-being is not something comprehensible to created beings. As St John Damascene states “all that we say positively of God manifests not his nature but the things about his nature.”
For the Eastern Orthodox, the distinction as the tradition and perspective behind this understanding, is that creation is the task of energy. If we deny the real distinction between essence and energy, we can not fix any very clear borderline between the procession of the divine persons (as existences and or realities of God) and the creation of the world: both the one and the other will be equally acts of the divine nature (strictly uncreated from uncreated). The being and the action(s) of God then would appear identical, leading to the teaching of Pantheism. Eastern Orthodox theologians assert that Western Christianity treats God’s ousia as energeia and dunamis (Aristotle’s Actus et potentia) as part of the scholastic method in theology. Which allows God’s incomprehensibility to become comprehensible, by not making a distinction between God’s nature and manifestation of things about God’s nature. As Aristotle and Pagan philosophy taught that God was the underlying substance, nature, being, essence (ousia) of all things (as the Monad in substance theory). Making the very thing that makes God, God (uncreated, incomprehensible) the same as God’s created world and created beings. God’s ousia then becomes detectable and experienced as a substance, essence, being or nature. Rather than God’s hyper-being (ousia) as, infinite and never comprehensible to a finite mind or consciousness.
Therefore Pagan philosophy via Metaphysical dialects sought to reconcile all of existence (ontology), with Mankind’s reason or rational faculty culminating into deification called henosis. Where in Pagan henosis all of creation is absorbed into the Monad and then recycled back into created existence. Since in Pantheism there is nothing outside of creation or the cosmos, including God, since God is the cosmos in Pantheism. Or rather meaning no ontology outside of the cosmos (creation). Whereas Orthodox Christianity strictly seeks soteriology as reconciliation (via synergeia) of man (creation, creatures) with God (the uncreated) called theosis. Mankind is not absorbed into the God’s ousia or hypostases or energies in theosis. Ousia here is a general thing or generality, in this case ousia is the essence, nature, being, substance of the word God and concept of God. Various Orthodox theologians argue Western Christianity teaches that the essence of God can be experienced (man can have the same consciousness as God); they charge that Western Christianity’s treatment is very much in line with the pagan speculative philosophical approach to the concept of God.
Since no distinction is made between God’s essence and his works, acts (i.e. the cosmos) that there is no distinction between God and the material or created world, cosmos. Gregory Palamas’ distinction is denied in favor of pagan Philosopher Aristotle’s Actus et potentia. Uncreated as that which has no first cause and is not caused, in Eastern Orthodoxy therefore being the basis for understanding outside the realm of science. Atheism here being a denial of the uncreated. Pagan philosophical metaphysics being a dialectical attempt to rationalize the uncreated.
Eastern Orthodox theologians have criticized Western theology, and especially the traditional scholastic claim that God is actus purus, for its alleged incompatibility with the essence-energies distinction. Christos Yannaras writes, “The West confuses God’s essence with his energy, regarding the energy as a property of the divine essence and interpreting the latter as “pure energy” (actus purus)” According to George C. Papademetriou, the essence-energies distinction “is contrary to the Western confusion of the uncreated essence with the uncreated energies and this is by the claim that God is Actus Purus”.
The Danish Lutheran philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, widely considered the father of existentialism, expressed (pseudonymously as John Climacus) in Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments an approach to God which holds that the Father’s hypostasis (existence) has logical primacy over his ousia (essence or substance). Hence the teaching that the core of existentialist philosophy can be understood as the maxim, “existence before essence.” This has caused many Western observers to see Eastern Orthodox Christian theology as existentialistic (since the Essence–Energies distinction also somewhat holds the view). This also accounts for other existentialistic works such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. In the case of Dostoevsky, his existentialist outlook would have drawn from his Russian Orthodox faith, but there is no record of Dostoevsky (and the Eastern Orthodox church in general) being exposed to or influenced by Kierkegaard’s philosophical works.
The Roman Catholic Church distinguishes between doctrine, which is single and must be accepted by Roman Catholics, and theological elaborations of doctrine, about which Catholics may legitimately disagree. With respect to the Eastern and Western theological traditions, the Roman Catholic Church recognizes that, at times, one tradition may “come nearer to a full appreciation of some aspects of a mystery of revelation than the other, or [express] it to better advantage
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.” In these situations, the Church views the various theological expressions “often as mutually complementary rather than conflicting.”
From Palamas’s time until the twentieth century, Roman Catholic theologians[who?] generally rejected the idea that there is in God a real essence-energies distinction. In their view, a real distinction between the essence and the energies of God contradicted the teaching of the First Council of Nicaea on divine unity. The idea of a real essence-energies distinction in God also conflicted with Western Scholasticism’s usual insistence that, as actus purus, God can contain no real distinctions besides the distinctions between the divine persons. According to Adrian Fortescue, Palamas’s philosophical opponents always borrowed their weapons from Western Scholasticism. For these opponents, Fortescue claims, an uncreated energy really distinct from God’s essence would be either “something neither God nor creature” or a second God. Fortescue reported that Palamas charged his opponents with fifty heresies and that Palamas himself, when condemned by a synod summoned by the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1345, “outwardly” withdrew what Fortescue called Palamas’s “heresy”.
Resistance to the claim of a real essence-energies distinction in God continued into the twentieth century. Simon Vailhé accused Palamas’s theology of “monstrous errors” and “perilous theological theories”, claiming that the Eastern churches’ canonization of Palamas’s theories represented a “resurrection of polytheism”. Fortescue, also writing in the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia, claimed that “the real distinction between God’s essence and operation remains one more principle, though it is rarely insisted on now, in which the Orthodox differ from Catholics”. Fortescue saw Hesychasm, which Barlaam called superstitious and absurd, as a form of auto-suggestion. Ludwig Ott held that an absence of real distinction between the attributes of God and God’s essence is a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, adding, “In the Greek Church, the 14th century mystic-quietistic Sect of the Hesychasts or Palamites […] taught a real distinction between the Divine Essence […] and the Divine Efficacy or the Divine attributes.” In contrast, Jürgen Kuhlmann argues that the Roman Catholic Church never judged Palamism to be heretical, adding that Palamas did not consider that the distinction between essence and energies in God made God composite
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. According to Kuhlmann, “the denial of a real distinction between essence and energies is not an article of Catholic faith”. The Enchiridion Symbolorum et Definitionum (Handbook of Creeds and Definitions), the collection of Roman Catholic teachings originally compiled by Heinrich Joseph Dominicus Denzinger, has no mention of the words “energies”, “hesychasm” or “Palamas”.
The later twentieth century saw a remarkable change in the attitude of Roman Catholic theologians to Palamas, a “rehabilitation” of him that has led to increasing parts of the Western Church considering him a saint, even if uncanonized. Some Western scholars maintain that there is no conflict between the teaching of Palamas and Roman Catholic thought on the distinction. According to G. Philips, the essence-energies distinction of Palamas is “a typical example of a perfectly admissible theological pluralism” that is compatible with the Roman Catholic magisterium. Jeffrey D. Finch claims that “the future of East-West rapprochement appears to be overcoming the modern polemics of neo-scholasticism and neo-Palamism”. Some Western theologians have incorporated the essence-energies distinction into their own thinking.