Is the Catholic Church wrong about the essence/energy distinction?


Here is a bit from a response by an Eastern Orthodox adherent to Jimmy Akin’s “Why I’m Not Eastern Orthodox”

A more accurate description of the Filioque’s history is this: The ancient Church, both East and West, confessed that God the Father is the fountain of the God-head and source of the Trinity. The Son is eternally begotten of Him and the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from Him. While these are the essential (substantial) relations between the Persons of the Trinity, there is another set of relations known as energetic relations. These are the relations of action between the Persons of the Trinity. For example, God has the power of creating essentially (as He is omniscient), but He became a Creator through actualizing this power in the act of creation. Some actions are eternal. God never began to do good, but doing good is an action, so that God energetically does God from all eternity. Likewise, the Holy Spirit energetically proceeds from the Father and the Son in the sense that the Father sends the Spirit through the Son as a manifestation of the unity of the Trinity. All ancient Christians, East and West, confessed this doctrine.

However, St. Augustine was unable to grasp the essence/energies distinction. Instead of making the visible appearances of God a disincarnate appearance of the Divine Word (as all the other Fathers had), St. Augustine made these “theophanies” symbolic representations of the untouchable and invisible essence of God. Because there was no distinction between the essence and energies of God, St. Augustine taught that the Holy Spirit eternally proceeded from the Father and the Son in essence. The Franks used St. Augustine as the framework through which they would read the rest of Christian theology and included it in the Creed at various Synods of theirs.

What would be the Catholic’s counter to these assertions?


Other people more knowledgeable in all of this will be able to say a few things better.

But on this point, I think it is very simplistic to convey the filioque history in this way. Besides the annoying fact of making Saint Augustine the bad guy (as many in the East like to do), the teaching is simply not contrary to Eastern theology when properly understood, and ancient Eastern theology like the Alexandrians and others also taught that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son.

Some other points:

  • I’m not sure if it would be right to say that the Catholic Church could be wrong in the essence/energy idea. Aren’t there Eastern Catholics who express their theology in this way?
  • If God had a power that could be actualized, this cannot mean there is a change in his being: If he is the first cause, where would he get the actualization from? He can’t be a self-mover. Creation does not mean God was doing something and then began creating. He is outside of time, so he is eternally Creator in that, all at “once,” God knows and acts for there to be a Universe in time.


Kept within their own theological frameworks there’s really no contradiction between the two traditions. The problem comes when they encountered eachother without much effort at proper translation (a common problem you’ll find again and again between Apostolic traditions, going back to the Council of Ephesus at least). Remember, the Byzantine tradition (with St. Gregory Palamas) takes it as a given that we can’t comprehend the Divine Essence, and builds from there without making a distinction between “knowing” and “comprehending” the way the West did. Furthermore, there is no “partial sharing” of Essence in this system the way there is in Western theology (in the West it would be called “participation in the Divine Essence”); it’s all or nothing, since the Essence is what fundamentally defines a thing. The West gets around this by pointing out that “essential properties” can be shared without the essences themselves changing (basically, the West uses a less strict definition of Essence, broadened to include essential properties and not merely the “pure definition”). In the East, the “essential properties” get folded into energy instead, and essence is kept as the “simple definition”. Neither approach is right or wrong, so long as they are both internally consistant, and they are.

So along comes the West saying “we share in the Divine Essence through Grace”, and the East hears this as “we become Persons of the Trinity through Grace”. From the other side, the East comes along saying “we can’t share in the Divine Essence, but only the Divine Energy (activity/operation)”. The West sounds, to the East, like it’s proposing the disolution of the self into the Godhead, and the East sounds, to the West, like its denying any real participation in Divinity. The irony, of course, is that both sides are actually saying the exact opposite from what they’re being heard to say.


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