A quick correction on God as hyperousios and the distinction between essence and energy

Father Kimel responded recently on his blog to another participant that one of the possible errors of Orthodoxy was “the distinction between the divine being and the energies.” I have seen the distinction glossed this way by many interlocutors on that board, and I have no doubt Fr. Kimel wasn’t being precise in his language, nevertheless, I think this reading betrays a certain fundamental misunderstanding of the Orthodox position and the Eastern Fathers. I would like to clean this up a bit in a few posts here which might shed some more light on the position. I responded:

There is no distinction between the divine being and the energies. This is a misunderstanding of the position. God’s “essence” is not being in any sense at all. As Gregory Palamas says, either God is being and we are not or we are being and He is not. We say that God is hyperousios ousios, and hyperousios is no adjective modifying ousios. The scholastics read Dionysius as God standing above all finite being, and hence their being an epistemic and metaphysical continuity between God and finite beings (the analogy of being). When we say God is hyperousios ousios, it means that God’s ‘essence’ “stands above his own being producing cause of all beings, that is, God as the divine energy.” (John D. Jones, Marquette) Furthermore, when we say “God’s essence”, it is only as a reference point as a causal designation. Quoting Jones again, “On this view, despite the grammatical form of hyperousios ousia, ousia is not a noun referring to a divine ‘essence’ characterized as hyperousios in one sense and as ousiopoios (being producing) in another. Rather, hyperousios “indicates” the Godhead as uncoordinated with all and, thus, beyond all names whatsoever; ousia, however, refers to God as manifested…in the divine energy.”–John D. Jones. “Manifesting Beyond-Being Being (hyperousios ousia): The Divine Essenc-Energies Distinction for Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagite.” St. Louis Philosophy Department Colloquium. April 15, 2005.


9 Responses to A quick correction on God as hyperousios and the distinction between essence and energy

  1. Fr. Oliver says:

    Oh, sorry for skipping an intro, Photius. I am attached (assist) at Nativity of the Virgin Mary Orthodox Church in Madison, IL: http://www.nativityofthevirgin.com
    The next several weeks, I’m actually doing what some might call “pulpit supply,” so I won’t be at that parish building again until mid-September. I am also a Ph.D. student in historical theology at St. Louis University. This means I tend to have strengths in the history and theology areas. If you get into too much late-medieval and modern philosophy, you could quickly lose me. After all, how many of us can be experts on all of it, anyway? So, you’ll probably find that I’ll keep my post to historical-theological areas and sometimes, even in those, not always get into all the philosophical ramifications.

  2. Daniel:
    I’m actually glad to hear you haven’t started on that! It occurred to me after I sent that email that it was going to take you days to write a response. To spare you that effort, I’d actually rather talk it out over the phone if it’s all the same to you. I’ll email you with my new contact information (BTW, I seem to have lost yours in the move), and we can try to set up a good time to chat.

  3. Fr. Oliver,

    Which Church do you pastor and where?


  4. Jonathan,

    I agree that there is an analogy of being “somewhere.” Christos Yannaras thinks that we can construct a continuity between not the hyperousios ousia but between created beings and the divine-being producing-energies. This makes sense of course, since, the energies are also predeterminations and blue prints for created essences.

    Sorry that I have not emailed you back. I have been bogged down in personal issues. I will try to this weekend.


  5. Fr. Oliver says:

    That may well be the case, then. Augustine certainly is a creative fellow but as you’re noting, problems abound. Sometimes, I find myself defending Augustine, but not today, especially not today since Trinitarian theolody and Christology were raised concerning points where he seems to be errant, or at least imprecise.

  6. Fr. Oliver:
    That’s helpful, but it seems to create even more problems. I don’t see how St. Augustine could possibly be preserving the unknowability of the divine if he is treating the term “God” in Matt. 5:8 as if it is equivalent to “the Trinity.” Moreover, he would completely contradict St. Hilary’s view that the Son appeared (was made visible) without the Father (the “Unborn God”) in the Old Testament theophanies. I agree that St. Hilary is more precise, but now it simply seems that he was doubly more precise, both preserving the personhood of the OT theophanies and preserving the unknowability of the divine essence in John 6:46.

  7. Fr. Oliver says:

    I apologize for the grammatical and spelling errors. “more in line” it should have said and an earlier “is” should have been an “it.” That’s what I get for not doing a preview.

  8. Fr. Oliver says:

    Actually, Jonathan, one of the fundamental problems with Augustine is that he is approaching things in light of Trinitarian shorthand (one God, three Persons). This is not to say that Ayres and others can’t classify him as a “Pro-Nicene.” They certainly can. What is does mean, is that he does not precisely maintain that the one God is God the Father. Hence, he has manifestations of the Trinity in the Scriptures, rather than the Son, who fully and completely discloses this God to us. It could be that Hilary is more in light with a more precise theology.

  9. Funny how things keep coming up just as I’ve read about them. Pelikan has some useful things to say about Cappadocian apophaticism in this regard in Christianity and Classical Culture that clarify this fairly well. In the Cappadocian epistemology, the sheer diversity and depth and multiplicity of the energies (the transcendent good in which created things participate), which are themselves even in their existence only knowable imperfectly by analogy, is what points to the infinite and unknowable divine essence (hyperousios). We never actually fully grasp the divine energies themselves, much less the hyperousios which the divine energies manifest. To get your head around the concept, it helps to think of created things as called from nonbeing into (relative) being by the divine energies within a created order (taxis), which is also to say “in terms of apocatastasis.” We can only analogically (apophatically) grasp even God’s existential manifestation; much less can we understand His transcendence of existence.

    BTW, what I’m saying is true of all of our knowledge of theology (as opposed to economy), including our knowledge of the Trinity, which is really imperfectly grasped by analogy. “Father” is an apophatic term; “begetting” is an apophatic term; even “perichoresis” is an apophatic term. They are analogies to protect us from going *wrong*, but they do not technically express positive truth about God in the sense that we would ordinarily understand it. If you don’t get that, it’s extremely easy to interpret Nicaea and other councils in an excessively “rationalistic” way.

    I think that St. Thomas might have grasped this in some sense, although it’s hard to say. St. Augustine is a much tougher case; I’m having a very hard time dealing with his approach to the Arian use of John 6:46 (“Not that any one has seen the Father except him who is from God; he has seen the Father.”) to disprove the divinity of the Son. Augustine’s response seems to set John 6:46 at odds with Matt. 5:8 (“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”) and 1 Cor. 13:12 (“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.”), while I would think that the orthodox view requires that John 6:46 refers to the divine essence itself while Matt. 5:8 and 1 Cor. 13:12 refer to the divine energies. St. Augustine’s take would appear to be at odds with St. Hilary’s endorsement of the following accounts of the Old Testament theophanies:
    “XIV. If any man says that the Son did not appear to Abraham, but the Unborn God, or a part of Him: let him be anathema.

    XV. If any man says that the Son did not wrestle with Jacob as a man, but the Unborn God, or a part of Him: let him be anathema.”

    IOW, it appears that St. Hilary adhered to the orthodox formula that the theophanies were true manifestations of God in divine energies within the divine economy, but not so as to make visible the divine hyperousios (which is forbidden by John 6:46). St. Augustine, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have viewed John 6:46 as referring to the divine hyperousios but rather to God in His being in any sense (including the divine energies). Thus, when the Arians raised the fact that the Son was seen to disprove His divinity using John 6:46, St. Augustine replies that this would have been violated by the Old Testament theophanies as well. Consequently, both seeing the Son and seeing the Old Testament theophanies were, in fact, seeing *created* things, rather than actual manifestations of the divine being (divine energies). ISTM that if St. Augustine had even relied on Marius Victorinus’s apophatic concept of God as “beyond being,” he wouldn’t have made that mistake. I’m still mulling over the implications of that error.

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