Just like the doctrine of the Holy Trinity can be inferred on good grounds from the Scriptures, so could the energy-essence distinction (EED). The Scriptures are replete with statements that God cannot be seen, but Christ has made Him known. (cf John 1:18, John 6:46, 1 Tim 6:16) If one were to take these statements in isolation, it would mean that God was never seen. Yet, the Scriptures are also replete with Theophonies and such. (cf Acts 7:55-56) What is going on?
Just as the doctrine of the Trinity was later elaborated upon by later theologians on the basis that the Scriptures teach both that there is one God and that three Persons are the one God, the EED likewise is a doctrine one may infer by reconciling the fact God is unseen, but yet is seen. When one reads the Bible looking for the answer as to how God is seen, it will be shown that the Scriptural answer pertains to God being perceived in His energies (i.e. works).
However, though the Scriptures teach EED, they generally do not go “all the way” into “Palamite” territory. The reason this is “generally” instead of categorically the case is because a passing statement is made in Wis 7:24-27 that is entirely consistent with the Palamite application of EED. Why did the Scriptures not focus on EED in more detail? The answer to this question is that the Scriptures invoke doctrine to address relevant controversies of their time. As it will be shown, the Scriptures, as well as the earliest patristic witness (Saint Theophilus of Antioch), are mainly concerned with countering the worship of idols. They reason that polytheists are without excuse, because they perceive God in His works (lit. “energies”).
Taking the preceding into account is important, because in order to truly understand EED and how it was taught Apostolically, one must contextualize what precisely was taught and why it was taught. If one does this, it becomes clear that the EED of the Scriptures and Theophilus is the same EED that is presently preserved by the Orthodox Catholic Church.
The EED in Rom 1:18-21. Looking at Rom 1, one can see that Saint Paul taught both the invisibility and paradoxical visibility of God. The context of this teaching, as covered in the introduction, pertains to why idolaters are without excuse, because they perceive God via what they see in creation:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (Rom 1:18-21)
As one can see in the preceding, “the invisible things of Him” are made manifest (visible to mankind) in creation itself (“for God hath shewed it unto them”). In the preceding statement, one may not immediately infer the EED, and justifiably so. The creation, which man sees, is not God. It’s more of “footprint” left behind by God, showing He was there and did something. So, Saint Paul is not explicitly saying man only perceives God by His works (or “energies”), but that the created order is a visible mark in which man sees God’s energies. Because of this, man can perceive that God exists and His justice. This makes man without excuse when he turns from God and sins.
The EED in Wis 13. The Wisdom of Solomon is a Deuterocanonical book which is explicitly quoted and paraphrased by Saint Paul as well as the other Apostles. It’s canonicity was disputed in the early Church, but in the Orthodox Church it is read liturgically and understood to contain revealed truth. In any event, however, one feels about the book itself, it was obviously important to early Christians and maintains that same importance to this day.
In Wisdom‘s 13th chapter, the author is making the same point that Saint Paul was trying to make. Keeping Rom 1 in mind will help the reader interpret the following passage:
Surely vain are all men by nature, who are ignorant of God, and could not out of the good things that are seen know him that is: neither by considering the works [ἔργοις] did they acknowledge the workmaster; but deemed either fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circle of the stars, or the violent water, or the lights of heaven, to be the gods which govern the world. With whose beauty if they being delighted took them to be gods; let them know how much better the Lord of them is: for the first author of beauty hath created them. But if they were astonished at their power [lit. “working” ἐνέργειαν] and virtue, let them understand by them, how much mightier He is that made them. For by the greatness and beauty of the creatures proportionably the maker of them is seen. But yet for this they are the less to be blamed: for they peradventure err, seeking God, and desirous to find him. For being conversant in his [lit. “for in the”] works [ἔργοις] they search him diligently, and believe their sight: because the things are beautiful that are seen. Howbeit neither are they to be pardoned. For if they were able to know so much, that they could aim at the world; how did they not sooner find out the Lord thereof? (Wis 13:1-9)
Read as a whole, the passage is saying nothing any different than Rom 1. However, there is a slightly different technical argument being made in the passage itself. It is arguing that God Himself can be perceived by His works which are presently “working” in creation. In other words, when one sees something beautiful, one is seeing “evidence” of the invisible God through created things. According to David Winston, a Berkley scholar and an expert on Wisdom:
This is a well known Stoic argument (already used by Plato and Aristotle and repeated by Philo): we form the concept of divinity from our awareness of the world’s beauty, since no beautiful thing happens by chance, but is the product of creative art…whereas, the ultimate reality [i.e. God] is invisible. (Harper Collins Study Bible: NRSV, 1993, p. 1518)
Winston cites the following from Philo, a first century Jewish philosopher, as evidence of the preceding:
For the Chaldaeans were, above all nations, addicted to the study of astronomy, and attributed all events to the motions of the stars, by which they fancied that all the things in the world were regulated, and accordingly they magnified the visible essence by the powers which numbers and the analogies of numbers contain, taking no account of the invisible essence appreciable only by the intellect. But while they were busied in investigating the arrangement existing in them with reference to the periodical revolutions of the sun, and moon, and the other planets, and fixed-stars, and the changes of the seasons of the year, and the sympathy of the heavenly bodies with the things of the earth, they were led to imagine that the world itself was God, in their impious philosophy comparing the creature to the Creator. (On Abraham, par 69)
As one can see, Philo accuses the pagans of being pantheists, conflating the works of God with His “visible essence.” Philo has a different application of the idea of “essence” than what one may infer from Saint Paul and Wisdom. At this stage of history, essence did not have a highly appreciated technical meaning pertaining only to God’s literal substance. Because Rom 1:20 and Wis 13:5 teach that God is literally invisible, which would mean His substance would have to be, these Scriptures would not align with Philo.
However, the point Philo is making has some similarity with the Scriptures if one is not too hung up on technical differences. God, according to Philo, has a “visible essence” and an “invisible essence.” The “visible essence” one may today classify as His energies and these energies pertain to how God is visible in the realm of creation (such as the movement of the stars). The “invisible essence,” God’s literal substance, is what can allegedly only be contemplated by the intellect (because, according to Philo and the Platonists, the reality of God can truly only be contemplated).
So, Philo is teaching something analogous to EED, though not quite the same thing. Saint Maximus the Confessor would reject Philo’s application of EED, as he believed the essence of God to be infinitely beyond contemplation:
[T]he blessed Godhead itself, in its own existence, which is infinitely unapproachable and absolutely inaccessible to every principle, mode, intellect, and to all language and every name… (Ambigua to John, 10:97)
So, Philo is not teaching a proto-Orthodox doctrine, but he is drawing a distinction along similar lines.
But enough of Philo. How about Wisdom? Wisdom, philosophically, is more advanced than Philo, because it makes clear that what man’s perceiving is not a different (visible) kind of “essence,” but rather the work of that essence.
A critic of Orthodoxy may justifiably assert that when this passage is taken in isolation, Wisdom appears to teach that one only sees the “footprint” of God in His creation. It is only when the created things “work” that those things reflect the God who made them, they may say. And so, this passage in Wisdom does not contain what is precisely the EED itself, which would require God Himself being perceived in His energies.
The Orthodox may respond that the reader may read a little between the lines and see that the argument of beauty requires that the one who is Beauty is not so according to essence, which is invisible, but energies. And so, when one sees any beauty at all, one is actually perceiving the energies of God, but through the “filter” of creation. In the words of Saint Maximus:
[T]he intellect naturally apprehends all the logoi in beings and contemplates within them the infinite energies of God, it recognizes the differences of the divine energies it perceives to be multiple and—to speak truly—infinite. (Ambigua to John, 22:2)
Is it proper to infer Maximus’ teaching of the logoi from the teaching on beauty in Wis 13? One can say that it is not only proper, but also necessary. This is because elsewhere in Wisdom, energies are ascribed to God Himself and if this is the case, His energies perceived in creation are in fact “infinite…divine energies.”
The EED in Wis 7. Evidence of the preceding can be found in the following passage in Wisdom. As one can see, it teaches that God has eternal energies and that man participates in these:
For wisdom is more moving than any motion: she passeth and goeth through all things by reason of her pureness [lit. “purifying,” καθαρότητα]. For she is the breath of the power of God, and a pure influence flowing from [lit. “emanation,” ἀπόρροια] the glory of the Almighty: therefore can no defiled thing fall into her. For she is the brightness of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power [lit. “energies,” ἐνεργείας] of God, and the image [lit. “icon,” εἰκὼν] of his goodness. And being but one, she can do all things: and remaining in herself, she maketh all things new: and in all ages entering into holy souls, she maketh them friends of God, and prophets. (Wis 7:24-7:27)
First, one must identify that Wisdom in the passage is a euphemism for Jesus Christ:
He is the image [lit. “icon,” εἰκὼν] of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. (Col 1:15)
He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person [lit. hypostasis, ὑποστάσεως], and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Heb 1:2-3)
Second, if the passage is about Jesus Christ (which is clearly how Saint Paul understood it) then one must come to the following understanding: Christ illumines (lit. purifies) the prophets through a participation in His energies. Why? He is “the unspotted mirror of the energies of God” the Father. Clearly, God has energies. Wisdom “emanates” (ἀπόρροια)* from God the Father and has flowing into Himself** eternal energies, having them as His own. This is why He is an “unspotted mirror” without need of divine purification. And so, when purifying the prophets (“entering holy souls”), Jesus Christ passes these same eternal energies along. Therefore, the union of man with God is real and not through some created form of grace. Union is with an eternal “part” of God, specifically His energies which are derived from the eternal source/cause, the Father. This teaching on purification is precisely that which is found in Saint Dionysius the Areopogite and is the teaching of all the saints.
*The term emanation simply means “to flow out of” and did not have Neo-Platonic implications at the time of Wisdom’s composition.
**In wisdom literature, personified wisdom is given a female gender, even though it is in reference to Jesus Christ.
The EED in Saint Theophilus of Antioch. The argument concerning the EED as found in Romans and Wisdom is also found in Book I of To Autolycus. It likewise teaches that God is only perceptible in His works (lit. energies) and imperceptible in His essence:
The appearance of God is ineffable and indescribable, and cannot be seen by eyes of flesh. For in glory He is incomprehensible, in greatness unfathomable, in height inconceivable, in power incomparable, in wisdom unrivalled, in goodness inimitable, in kindness unutterable. (chap 3)
God has made out of things that were not into things that are, in order that through His works [lit. energies] His greatness may be known and understood. (chap 4)
From the preceding, it is clear that God’s essence is “incomprehensible,” but God is literally “beheld and perceived” through what He does (i.e. His energies). While this is not radically different than Wisdom 13 and Romans, Saint Theophilus connects a necessary set of dots as it pertains to EED similar to Wisdom 7. God is literally experienced (“beheld and perceived”) by His energies, not His essence.
Differences between earlier and later treatments of EED. One may notice that the way EED is treated in the aforementioned sources is different than what one is typically used to hearing. The chief difference between Theophilus’ EED and later Palamite EED was the concern the theological distinction was meant to address. While Palamas was addressing a scholastic school of thought that held God can only be experienced through a created grace (to which he responded that man directly experiences God Himself through His energies), Theophilus is not overtly concerned about this. He seems so unconcerned about it that he seemingly delays a direct vision of the divine to the eschaton. (cf chap 6) So, even though the core of EED is found in To Autolycus, to draw it out as completely Palamite would be to lose the thrust of Theophilus’ actual argument.
This is because the first and second century teachers of EED were more concerned with confronting paganism and idolatry than opposing scholastic distinctions concerning grace found during the middle ages. To the ancients, because man experienced the true God directly, via his energies, he should not be wasting his time with idols which are clearly not that God. The energies of God in this scheme are treated more as a fossil record that reveal God’s work than an active manifestation of His divinity.
Conclusion. While most ancient treatments of EED are not necessarily concerned with Theosis and man’s union with God, they are implicitly addressing the same thing. Nevertheless, the first and second century writers may be forgiven for not addressing in more detail what the mystical vision of God really is, because they were not embroiled in such a controversy. Only in the fourth century, during the Arian controversy, was the EED fully fleshed out where it would be instantly recognizable to Palamites. Later Christological controversies, particularly over the heresy of monoenergism, would further flesh out the doctrine.
So, does this mean that EED is a crass doctrinal development? According to Saint Vincent de Lerins:
[I]n the course of ages and centuries, [doctrine is] to increase and make much and vigorous progress; but yet only in its own kind; that is to say, in the same doctrine, in the same sense, and in the same meaning. (Commonitorium, par 54)
In other words, doctrines may develop in their application, but not in what they actually teach. Heretical doctrines do not meet this Vincentian criteria. For example, later heresies such as Christological postlapsarianism or the Immaculate Conception of the Theotokos, were taught by no one in the Church and in fact contradict the vast preponderance of fathers and Scriptures bearing on these topics.
Contrariwise, the EED is found implicitly in Romans, and literally in Wisdom and To Autolycus. This same distinction, originally devised to shut the mouths of idolaters, never goes away and when it is applies to future controversies, it maintains the same defining attributes. Therefore, it is “the same doctrine” in Vincent’s words.
Furthermore, it maintains the “same sense…and meaning” as later Palamite expounding of EED. This is proven out by the treatment of purification in Wis 7:24-27, which is explicitly Dionysian and would be drawn out along the same lines by Saints Maximus, Gregory Palamas, and Nicholas Cabasilas.
Therefore, one cannot help but conclude that the EED is thoroughly Scriptural and Apostolic, which is why it was immediately seized upon by fathers beginning in the second century and ever since then.