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11 - The Essence/Energies Distinction in Vladimir Lossky and Dumitru Staniloae

International Orthodox Theological Association (IOTA) Pan-Orthodox Unity and Conciliarity Conference

Listen to lectures and interviews with the speakers at the Inaugural Conference of the International Orthodox Theological Association (IOTA), with the theme Pan-Orthodox Unity and Conciliarity, held January 9 to 12, 2019, in Iasi, Romania.

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April 2019

11 - The Essence/Energies Distinction in Vladimir Lossky and Dumitru Staniloae

Mr. Jonas Eklund (Sweden) presents “The Essence/Energies Distinction in Vladimir Lossky and Dumitru Staniloae: Two Markedly Divergent Approaches” at the Inaugural Conference of the International Orthodox Theological Association (IOTA), with the theme Pan-Orthodox Unity and Conciliarity, held January 9 to 12, 2019, in Iasi, Romania.

April 17, 2019 Length: 17:25

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I’m really excited to be here. I really appreciate what IOTA has achieved so far, and I’m looking forward to what IOTA will achieve in the future as well.

My paper will explicate, analyze, and discuss the essence/energies distinction in Vladimir Lossky and Dumitru Stăniloae. Both of these exceptionally recognized Orthodox theologians have contributed with distinguished understandings of this doctrine. Yet in spite of their shared and Orthodox new patristic engagement, their positions are not easily harmonized. The paper will treat the essence/energies distinction and will consequently dwell on the questions of the definitions of God’s essences and energies and of the relationship between them. Largely by posing other aspects of this distinction, I hope that my study may inspire further discussions about, for instance, whether the notions of Lossky and Stăniloae are equally valid as the definitions of the Orthodox doctrine and to what degree they reflect the positions of St. Gregorios Palamas and the so-called Palamite councils of the 14th century. First, I will treat Lossky and then Stăniloae, and after a comparative section I will come to close with an evaluation.

To Vladimir Lossky, the essence/energies distinction is a real distinction in God, [irrespective] of creation, between two modes of existence, the essence being the tri-unitarian, absolute repose, whereas the energies contain every manifestation of God, both eternal and in time. Like every doctrine of God, Lossky claims, the essence/energies distinction can only be expressed in terms of an antinomy. To him, an antinomy is the affirmation of two equally true, yet contradicting statements, which places us before a certain divine mystery and leads us away from conceptual thinking to union with God. Without antinomy, we will be left with the rational concepts of the doctrines and may never reach any real experience of God.

In accordance with his antinomic method, Lossky tends to push the formulations of the doctrines into as sharp contradictions as possible. Thus he asserts that even though we are really promised to become partakers of the divine nature, this nature is in fact imparticipable. Therefore we are compelled to recognize an ineffable distinction that may account for the accessibility of the inaccessible nature, and this is the distinction “between the essence of God or his nature properly so called, which is inaccessible, unknowable, and incommunicable, and the energies or divine operations, forces proper to and inseparable from God’s essence in which he goes forth from himself, manifests, communicates, and gives himself.” Thus the promise of participation in the divine nature is actually not about participation in God’s nature properly so-called, but participation in his energies.

Yet, even though this resolves the antinomy, as Lossky writes, it does so without suppressing it, since the ineffable essence/energies distinction preserves the mystery intact. Careful to preserve the antinomic mystery, Lossky affirms repeatedly at the same time the radical distinction and the radical unity between the essence and energies. In one of the clearest examples of this, he writes that “in comparison to the solar disk and its rays, the distinction between essence and energies is more radical, and at the same time their unity is infinitely greater, even to the point of identity.” Lossky is generally reluctant to explicate his conception of God’s essence, yet occasionally he is quite clear. To him, God’s essence is absolute repose, in which God does not manifest himself in any way, neither to himself nor to others. Every movement of God, such as life, thoughts, ideas, truth, wisdom, and love, is ascribed to the energies, which are subsequent to the essence and are its natural manifestations, but are external to the very being of the Trinity. Thus to Lossky even God’s inter-Trinitarian love is an external energy “to say, ‘God is love’—the divine Persons are united by mutual love—is to think of a common manifestation: the love energy possessed by the three hypostases. For the union of the three is higher even than love.”

Moreover, Lossky affirms that God’s essence is by definition incommunicable and in fact has no precedence in creation. The Trinity, though not its essence, dwells in creation by means of its energies, which are communicable and which, in their communication to the world, are identical to grace. Thus there seems to be an absolute limit between the essence and energies which may not be compromised, as Lossky writes, “God is not limited by his essence. He is more than essence, existing both in his essence and outside of his essence, and his energies are external to the essence, as another mode of existence.” To Lossky, this is how the essence can remain incommunicable, whereas the Trinity is present in creation through its energies.

Yet we must not forget that the seemingly absolute limit between the essence and energies is complemented by Lossky’s affirmations of the indeterminacy and boundlessness of the essence and its virtual identity to the energies. Thus, even though the essence/energies distinction is real and eternal, it is antinomic and, as such, ineffable.

To Dumitru Stăniloae, on the other hand, the essence/energies distinction is the distinction between God’s being and his life and activity in regard to creation, or, as I will conclude, God as he is in and for himself, and God as he is in and for creation. In common with other Romanian theologians, Stăniloae uses “being” and “essence” interchangeably as translations of ousia. With God’s being or essence, he intends the inter-Trinitarian love in community. However, God’s essence subsists only in the Persons found in community. Thus, he writes, “the essence is a community of subjects who are fully transparent.” Yet, even though Stăniloae has a quite clear notion of the concept of God’s essence, he is adamant that we may never know what this essence really is, since it transcends all our concepts and possibilities of understanding.

However, Stăniloae recurrently identifies God’s essence with the love in community of the divine Persons. It is the eternal act, he writes, in which they reciprocally affirm one another in existence through perfect love and communicate their own being to each other without blending together. Yet since they are within the same integral movement of going out totally towards each other, they may be thought of as unmoved and stable.

On the highest divine level, the difference between nature and energy is surpassed in a way incomprehensible to us. The divine nature itself is energy, but it is so because it is of the supreme Persons. The Persons communicate their nature as an energy. Everything is an energy which is communicated from one Person to another. Their love is perfect. They radiate their whole nature from one to the other.

Stăniloae thus affirms an identity between nature and energy in God. Everything communicated from Person to Person is an energy, but only within God is the personal essence totally communicated. In no other case is a personal essence totally communicated, including God’s communication towards creation. Therefore, God’s essence is not identical with what he communicates of himself towards creation, but is his operations.

To Stăniloae, the achievement of the doctrine of God’s operations or uncreated energies is that it manages to take “seriously the fact that God has a personal character and, as such, can, like every person, live on more than one plane, or better, on two principal planes: the plane of existence in one self and the plane of activity for the other. A mother, for example, can play with her child, bringing herself down to his level, yet at the same time she preserves her mature consciousness as mother.” Thus to Stăniloae, the essence/energies distinction is the distinction between existence in one self and activity for the other. However, as this activity for the other is really God’s personal and active life and presence in regard to creation, the most revealing way to express Stăniloae’s notion of God’s operations, I think, is God as he is in and for creation, in distinction from God as he is in and for himself, that is, his essence.

Obviously, God’s essence and energies are not identical for Stăniloae, but yet they are intimately connected. The love that the divine Persons convey to humans is from the very love by which they love each other. Thus he writes: The interior love of the Trinity can be perceived in the work it directs ad extra. Consequently, through his energies, God makes something of his being evident to us and communicates to us in modes adapted to our condition, something of what he is in fact. So even though we cannot express him adequately, our knowledge of him is in no way opposed to God understood in himself.

It should be fairly obvious by now that Lossky and Stăniloae conceive of the essence/energies distinction in different ways. Whereas Lossky conceives it as an eternal and real distinction within God, [irrespective] of creation, between the tri-unitarian absolute repose and its manifestations, Stăniloae conceives it as the distinction between God as he is in and for himself and God as he is in and for creation.

Justifying his position, Lossky puts as an antithesis the presumed Western philosophical notion which is reported to hold that “all that is God is God’s very essence.” As a consequence of this erroneous opinion, Lossky claims, grace would have to be either the divine essence itself or a created effect that God produces in our soul. To him, anything that proceeds from God’s essence or encounters it will by necessity be or become the divine essence, too. Therefore he needs the essence/energies distinction to safeguard both the abyss between God’s essence and creation, and the condition for the possibility of God’s act of creation, God’s presence in creation, and the real participation of creatures in God. To Lossky, participation in the divine nature means nothing more than a real participation in God, that is, in the one mode of existence in God which is participable, namely, the energies. Yet he is adamant that God’s nature properly so-called is inaccessible, unknowable, and incommunicable. Thus in order to affirm the biblical and patristic expression of our participation in the divine nature, he accepts as a way of speech the presumed Western notion that “all that is God is God’s nature,” although this position, he acclaims, is utterly inaccurate.

Inclined to think in opposites, Lossky insinuates that one must choose between these two opposing understandings of God’s essence. However, this dichotomy is evidently false, since Stăniloae, as we have seen, presents a third option, an option which also manages to account for God’s creative activity and the creaturely real participation in God. Stăniloae understands God’s essence neither as “all that is God” nor as an absolutely motionless mode of existence, eternally and really distinct from any kind of movement and manifestation in God.

Instead, he understands God’s essence precisely as the eternal movement and manifestation of the divine Persons in which they give themselves totally to each other. In this inter-Trinitarian love, furthermore, all the divine attributes are implied. Thus God’s essence is “all that God is” as considered apart from creation, or in other words, God as he is in and for himself, in distinction from God as he is in and for creation.

To Stăniloae, the condition for the possibility of creation and its real participation in God is found in God’s very essence, that is, in the inter-Trinitarian, loving community. Thus, as the inter-Trinitarian love implies movement, it is the condition for the possibility of time, and as it implies otherness, it is the condition for the possibility of space. Creation emerges in an all-at-once event, as God produces this intention, all at once within himself. Stăniloae does not need anything between God’s essence and creation to maintain the abyss, because, even though God is present to us as he is, he does not communicate himself in his totality, but comes to meet us at our own level. For as he is a personal being, he can live on the plane of existence in himself as well as the plane of activity for the other. Moreover, as the union between persons implies otherness by definition, there is no risk for any mingling or identification which Lossky fears. Consequently, in the union with God, Stăniloae writes, our nature isn’t made into the divine nature because our created eye does not become the divine eye. The boundary of the person can never be dissolved.

Thus, for Stăniloae, personhood is what maintains the ontological abyss between God’s essence and creation. As every person is apophatic in a general way and par excellence, the supreme Personhood of God is that which guarantees his total apophaticism.

In evaluation, both Lossky and Stăniloae present powerful theological visions which are systematically elaborated and quite coherent. However, my own preference is for Stăniloae, primarily for three reasons. First, Lossky does not explain how the essence/energies distinction can be maintained within God, [irrespective] of creation. However, this lacuna is, of course, due to his reluctance to approach the internal life of God other than as an antinomic, ineffable mystery. Yet one wonders how God can manifest himself outside or beyond his essence, if creation did not already exist. As Lossky himself acknowledges, such expressions are really inappropriate for the “beyond” in question only begins to exist with the creation.

Second, in contrast to Lossky, Stăniloae manages to account for the Eastern patristic notion for deification without having to speculate about a distinction concerning how God is as considered apart from creation, which is a realm of which our knowledge, according to Orthodox tradition, is quite restricted.

Third, in our ecumenical age, Stăniloae’s position has the advantage, or perhaps disadvantage, depending on your leanings, to be more likely to appeal to Christians of other denominations as Lossky’s interpretation of the doctrine may appear, to Orientals and Westerners alike, as far too speculative in comparison to the biblical and patristic witnesses. Thank you.


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