See David Bradshaw’s provocative, pleasing, and thoroughly insightful essay on the contrasting reception of Aristotle’s concept of “the energy of God.”

“The term ‘energy’ comes from the Greek energeia, a term coined by Aristotle. Aristotle’s earliest works use it to mean the active exercise of a capacity, such as that for sight or thought, as distinct from the mere possession of the capacity.”
– From The Concept of Divine Energies

This essay is adapted from his book of the same title, available at Amazon. (You can also preview it thanks to Google books!)

“My goal in this paper is two-fold. First I wish to show that a sharply different way of thinking about God was present within the Christian tradition from an early point, that is, prior to Augustine. Second, I wish to show that this alternative conception is of live philosophical interest. Although I shall be discussing primarily Christian sources, I by no means believe that what I have to say should be of interest only to Christians. The question of what God is like, if there is a God, is of universal human importance. What ought to interest us in any answer is not what religious label it comes under, but whether it is true.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Keith E. Buhler


  1. […] Theology and Aristotle (and we’ll have to see if other Eastern notions arise as well). […]


  2. I’m glad your giving Bradshaw’s thoughts on this some attention. But I believe it is “David” Bradshaw, not “Richard”.


  3. I like Bradshaw’s book for a number of reasons. One of them is that it dispels the myth that there is something foundationally and necessarily different between Eastern and Western theology. I mean, if Eastern theology proper (or at least a prominent strand of it) turns on a fundamental distinction between essence and energy, which is derived from Aristotle (who, even if he inherited a notion of essence from Plato, formulated by himself the idea of energy), it’s hard to keep a straight face when one hears certain (many?) Orthodox theologians complain about all things Western. Of course, some such theologians will want to maintain that Aristotle is not Western, but try telling that to Aquinas.

    The same goes for some of the Eastern Orthodox denigrations of philosophy. Again, hard to keep a straight face when the history of the energy/essence distinction goes back to Aristotle.


  4. Martin,

    Thanks for the correction. It has been changed in the original post.

    Bradshaw is a refreshingly clear-sighted thinker, whom I am just beginning to get to know. What is his reputation? What of his have you read?


  5. Burglar,

    As I’m just getting into the conversations, my mind is by no means made up… but isn’t the salient difference between the different receptions, treatments, and additions to Aristotle?

    The turning point is often located at Augustine.

    Aquinas, for instance, wants to collapse all of God’s attributes (love, wisdom, power) and actions (creating, loving, saving, deifying) into His Essence. (See for instance, ST, Part I, Q3, Art. 4, “Whether essence and existence are the same in God?”, and Art. 7 “Whether God is altogether simple?”)

    In Article 7, he cites Augustine in De Trin. iv, 6,7, saying: “God is truly and absolutely simple.”

    If Augustine/Aquinas’ gloss of “simplicity” excludes the distinction between essence and energy, then it departs from Aristotle’s original sense and becomes “Western” in the pejorative sense I hear EO’ers squawking about.

    Simplicity in this sense obviously doesn’t exclude the distinction between the Persons. It does exclude their division.

    But then again, as the incarnation has taught us: distinction does not imply division.


  6. My knowledge of EO theology isn’t what it should be, so take what I’m about to say with a couple grains of salt.

    Whether Western theologians such as Aquinas and Augustine respect the energy/essence distinction can’t be solved by looking at whether they use the two terms (or the Latin equivalents). (I’m not saying you think this.) It seems to me that the point of the EO distinction is to maintain that God is in some way knowable (in his energy) and in some way essentially unknowable (in his essence). Since Aquinas (at least) wants to also maintain both of these as well, I don’t see where he differs on this matter from EO theology apart from disputes about what terms to use to explain one’s position. It seems to me that Aquinas maintains the knowable-yet-unknowable paradox (not quite the right word, but oh well), but he does not use the terms “energy” and “essence” to make such a distinction.

    I should say that this point seems too easy to me, and so I worry that it’s false. But it’s how things look to me now.

    In haste: I think there could also be some connection between Aquinas’s account of analogical predication and God’s being both known and unknown to us.


  7. Aquinas’ account of analogical predication could be promising. That is a point on which I do not know Aquinas well. If only Peregrine would stop by and weigh in on this discussion…?


  8. 1. It is not only knowability, and speakability, but God’s very being that is under question. The apophatic theologians like Dionysius say he is, “Beyond being, beyond knowledge, beyond speech.” These necessarily go together. So we would have to ask Aquinas or his interpreters whether God is not only beyond knowledge but also beyond being. If so, then the language and the pristine argumentation of the Summa takes a tentative and provisional nature, perfectly allowable since it leaves room for higher communion with God in addition to the merely mental.


  9. Burglar, for a succinct “official” overview of the Roman position, check out the New Advent article on Hesychism.

    It’s a little too long to quote in detail but here’s some of the juicy bits, with commentary.

    “The Hesychasts were… monks, who defended the theory that it is possible by an elaborate system of asceticism…to see… the uncreated light of God. The contemplation of this light is the highest end of man on earth; in this way is a man most intimately united with God. It is not the Divine essence; no man can see God face to face in this world (John i, 18), but it is the Divine action or operation. For in God action (energeia, actus, operatio) is really distinct from essence (ousia).”

    “Hesychasm then contains two elements, the belief that quietist contemplation is the highest occupation for men, and the assertion of real distinction between the divine essence and the divine energy.”

    OK here they boil down Hesychism, which is not just a theological theory after all but an orientation towards life and a set of practices aimed at becoming holy and intimate with God, into two propositions: 1. Union with God through contemplation of energeia is the highest end of man. 2. There is a real distinction between essence and energeia.

    “By contemplating the uncreated light one became united with God so intimately that one became absorbed in Him. This suspicion of pantheism (never very remote from neo-Platonic theories) is constantly insisted on by the opponents of the system.”

    This is kind of funny. The idea that the saint becomes “absorbed” into God is exactly that idea that they Hesychasts are avoiding by distinguishing essence and energy.

    From conversations I have had, the importance of the essence energy distinction is that it preserves the Godhead of God and the Humanity of man while allowing for the promised union with God (John 17) that is our strongly desired goal. It is precisely by denying that they become “one” with God’s essence that they do so. If I become one with God’s attribute of love, and God’s attribute of love is actually just his essence, then I am becoming one with his essence, and become a part of the Trinity. This is absurd and impious.

    Also, it is strange that they would speak snidely about “contemplation” being taken as the highest end of man, since east and westen, Aristotle, Aquinas, Augustine, Maximos, and Symeon all seem to be agreed on this point. Direct, vivid contact with God is the purpose and end of being a human. The Beatific Vision. See Aquinas, Dante, Dionysius.
    I think the real qualm is with how exactly that “contemplation” is cached out.

    According to Palamas et al, what “united to God” means is that I remain human, but am filled with divine attributes of love, wisdom, virtue. I never touch the divine essence or become a fourth member of the Trinity!

    What Aquinas’ actual view is, I don’t know, but according to this article, the logical conclusion of being filled with divine attributes is exactly the opposite. It is not being a human filled with Divine Energeia but being a former-human “replaced” with Divine Essence. Since there is no distinction, if I become infused with Love, I am being absorbed into the very essence of God and proportionally dumping my humanity. The less of me, the more of him, and vice versa.
    “The other element of fourteenth-century Hesychasm was the famous real distinction between essence and attributes (specifically one attribute — energy) in God. This theory, fundamentally opposed to the whole conception of God in the Western Scholastic system, had also been prepared by Eastern Fathers and theologians.”

    This is a big claim. I don’t know what to make of it. Do Roman Catholics not accept the Eastern Fathers, or do they do so only with qualification? Either way, you hear them saying that the essence/energies distinction strikes at the heart of “the Western scholastic system.” Does Bradshaw address this type of big claim, in your view, Burglar?

    “The Hesychasts were fond of illustrating their distinction between God’s essence and energy (light) by comparing them to the sun, whose rays are really distinct from its globe, although there is only one sun.”

    An interesting image to contemplate.

    “It is to be noted that the philosophic opponents of Hesychasm always borrow their weapons from St. Thomas Aquinas and the Western Schoolmen. They argue, quite in terms of Latin Aristotelean philosophy, that God is simple; except for the Trinity there can be no distinctions in an actus purus. This distinct energy, uncreated light that is not the essence of God, would be a kind of demiurge, something neither God nor creature; or there would be two Gods, an essence and an energy.”

    This is (I think) what Bradshaw is taking up and attempting to clarify.

    The response I have heard is, “No, there are not two God’s! But even as we know God and love him and are united to him, in a way he is still himself beyond us and unknown to us at the same moment as making himself REALLY known to us through his operations. This is a fascinating mystery we should discuss with him. Are his operations him? Yes! But they are not ALL of him. He still remains equally hidden and mysterious to us.”

    This is confusing. But do we expect to fully grasp God in a few arguments? The question remains an open challenge to the East and West: “What is the highest end of man? What is the relationship between man and God during the beatific vision? What ought we to aim for and pray for and hope for?”


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.