"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Development of doctrine, essence/energies,and ecumenism

In a previous post I briefly argued that there is hardly any substantive difference between the Catholic understanding of authentic development of doctrine, as expressed by Vatican II, and a fairly typical account of DD given by a mainstream Orthodox author. But for reasons of space, I discussed no specific instances of DD in detail. In this post, I shall take up the specific instance of the distinction between the divine essence and divine energies ('EED' for short) as propounded by St. Gregory Palamas. I shall briefly argue that EED is true, and also an instance of authentic DD.

For convenient reference, one can find in translation certain texts from Palamas on EED posted at the blog Wisdom!: Readings from the Fathers of the Church blog. (Hat tip to Brandon at Siris). But the argument does not depend on a detailed textual analyis. That would be too lengthy to give here and in any case would not be worth attempting without familiarity with the complete text in the original, which I do not yet have. Rather, Brandon has expressed the heart of the matter better than I have before.

EED is true inasmuch as the distinction follows from the fact that, as Brandon puts it:

...the divine names are not synonymous. But denying the distinction between essence and energies in the sense Palamas makes it would commit us to saying that the divine names are, in fact, synonymous. One of Gregory's arguments for the distinction is that regarding 'nature' and 'things pertaining to nature' as the same leads to heretical confusions; we can't conflate nature, intellect, will, compassion, judgment, etc., because we make nonsense of Christian doctrine if we do. And he is exactly right. Nature and will are not logically equivalent, even in the divine case.

If "nature" and "will" are not logically equivalent, then of course what God is, the divine essence, is not logically equivalent to what God does, the divine energies. Given that there is no such equivalence, EED as Palamas explicates it is true: "there is" such a distinction. And since denying that EED obtains would indeed "make nonsense of Christian doctrine," we must also say that EED is an instance of authentic DD. We do not find the distinction in so many words before St. Basil in the fourth century; under the spur of the Barlaamite controversy, it was only dogmatized by the Orthodox Church in the 14th century, and in the more specific sense that St. Gregory gave to the words. But it is inarguably implicit in much that the Church has always believed.

Now as a Catholic I assume that the dogma of absolute divine simplicity ('ADS' for short), as defined by Lateran IV and Vatican I, is also both true and an instance of authentic DD. It follows that I regard EED and ADS as mutually consistent. The most likely objection to my position from partisans on both sides is that EED and ADS are not mutually consistent. For partisans of EED, that will mean that ADS is false; for partisans of ADS, that will mean that EED is false. The objection, I believe, is misplaced.

In my only previous post devoted specifically to EED, I argued that the question of the compatibility of EED and ADS hinges on how the term 'divine essence' is used:

...if we take the term 'divine essence' to mean God as he necessarily is apart from what he does, if follows that the divine essence is incommunicable; for communication would be a complex of "energies," i.e. divine actions, and nothing can communicate that which it is regardless of communication. It also follows that there is a real distinction between the divine essence and the divine "energies," which are God as what he eternally does. (I say "eternally" not "necessarily" in this case because some of God's actions are atemporal and unalterable yet free and thus not necessitated by his essence or nature). But suppose we take the 'divine essence' as Aquinas ordinarily does, to mean God as what he eternally is. Given further Aquinas' doctrine that God is actus purus, and thus has no unrealized potentialities, it follows that there is no "real" distinction between the divine essence and the divine actions or "energies." And that is also a corollary of his doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS). So the question whether the essence/energies distinction is compatible with DDS depends on what one takes the term 'divine essence' to signify.

The question how we ought to use the term 'divine essence' might seem answerable purely by convention, and indeed that's what it is if we leave matters where I've left them thus far. But of course there remains a problem well known to many readers of this blog.

The most common objection to DDS is that it is logically incompatible with a clear tenet of faith, viz., that God's creating and communicating himself ad extra is free not necessitated. The most satisfactory answer to that objection, I have come to believe, is to affirm that the divine essence as Aquinas uses that term includes a kind of contingency. Thus, what-God-is is eternal and unalterable, but also entails that he do something-or-other he might not have done. Given as much, it was not absolutely necessary that he create at all or that he create this world rather than some other he might have created; that is only conditionally necessary given his free choice to create. But it is necessary that God have done something-or-other ad intra that is free. That God is necessarily and essentially personal (or tri-hypostatic, for those who dislike natural theology) entails that he do some-or-other free action, if only in relation to himself. God is what I call positively mysterious: intelligible, but inexhaustible and hence not fully comprehensible. And the self-contingent God is the same God as the divine essence.

This result jibes nicely with Brandon's remarks. Speaking of the divine names (to use the Pseudo-Dionysius' phrase), he says:

...what these terms refer to are not divided from each other in the Godhead. The divine nature is, as a whole, goodness; as a whole, wisdom; as a whole, justice; as a whole, power. And so forth. The terms are distinct, and necessarily so, but that to which they refer in God is one and the same. It's the unity that evades capture by human thought; we can obliquely refer to it, but we cannot understand it in itself, for refracting it into several non-synonymous conceptions, recognized not to be separable in the divine nature itself, is the only means we have of understanding such things. Thus they differ according to their mode of intelligibility; as does that in God which is incommunicable and that in God by which we participate in divinity.

And that, it seems to me, is entirely compatible with what Palamas says, once we take into account the differing but complementary uses of the term 'divine essence' in the thought of Palamas and Aquinas respectively.

Such conceptual subtleties aside, the most important thing Brandon says is this:

Of course, the point I really wish people would take away is that this is not a matter for polemics but for charitable doctrine. Say that I fail in my understanding of the account of the distinction between essence and energies, which is more than possible; it won't be conceded that the true account is less wonderful than the one I've suggested here. But the account I've suggested here, if true, suggests something so worthwhile that everyone ought to be told about it; no one should be attacked simply for not recognizing it as true, because that wastes precious moments that could be sent lovingly teaching them the truth. And if there is a better account, it is more worthy, not less, to be taught in such a way. For example, you can tell those Orthodox who truly believe the Palamite doctrine and those who merely uphold it through a party spirit. Those who truly believe it are excited about it; it charges them with love for their fellow man and an earnest desire that they, too, may know of this great and good truth, that God became man so that man might receive a deifying gift. They seek to convey it a thousand ways in the hope that those who do not understand might come to understand. Those who uphold it only out of party spirit conveniently forget that their acquaintance with it is not something they have due to their own intelligence or purity but simply and solely because God decided to bless them with the grace of being Orthodox. Because of this, they attack those who do not immediately recognize the doctrine as being stupid, or ignorant, or even corrupt. They spend far more time and effort criticizing other people for not believing it than they do teaching it; a sign of dangerous priorities. For the one the very doctrine is almost a prayer, and certainly a joy, itself; for the other, it is merely a line dividing the party of the Wise from that of the Foolish and the party of the Light from the party of the Dark. Here, as elsewhere, the true believers are marked out by a love for others and a concern for truth that the false believers lack. This is true even when the true believers criticize, which they sometimes do, and sometimes even do sharply. The difference from the mere partisans is palpable. Charity should rule all in all matters such as this.

Alas, it rarely does.

I add: it can. Let's start here.
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