[Previous reflections, including a brief historical context, are to be found here.]
These are the reflections of someone particularly ignorant about such deep matters, let alone of this specific Church Father. There are others who are much more knowledgeable than me. What I will attempt with these reflections is to bring together the deep theology they explicate and some thoughts of a more practical, hopefully somewhat ascetical, bent. That is to say, what I want to attempt is to reflect on these things as a way to better my living of the faith, and my prayers. I’m happy to be corrected by those who discern errors in my thoughts here.
The following citation from St. Greogry’s Dialogue encapsulates one of the fundamental points of theology in Orthodoxy. While there is dispute as to whether this energies/essence distinction has Ecumenical Conciliar backing, it has been dogmatized in two Local Councils and is accepted throughout Orthodox theology and experience, with a heavy emphasis on the experience of God.
Its patristic lineage is long, although the terminology has not been codified, and if one does not grasp the substance of the distinctions the Saint lays out here, one cannot accurately engage Orthodox faith and life. Indeed, these distinctions make it possible for life and dogma to be ineffably united, to grasp, however imperfectly, that Truth is a Person.
XXX. . . . O[rthodox]. Those who say that in God the activity is not different from His essence contend that He does not have essence and activity but only activity or only essence. For if there is no difference whatsoever between those things, why do they say that God not only has this but that as well unless they say that those things belong to God as empty names which have nothing to do with real things? In this way, they lead their followers astray by this tautology, pretending that they accept both ideas, whereas in fact they themselves believe that God is essence without activity or activity without essence.
B[arlaamite]. They claim that God is active essence but that he has no other activity besides His essence lest He be a composite being.
XXXI. O[rthodox]. Take caution that they do not bestow upon God “active” as an empty sound of a word, while they contrive precisely by that fact to lead astray those who are in dialogue with them. For the divine Maximus says: “Just as it is impossible to be without being, so is it not possible to be active without activity.” [To Marinus 200C] Hence, by taking away the divine activity and by fusing it with essence by saying that the activity does not differ from that essence, they have made God an essence without activity. And not only that, but they have also completely annihilated God’s being itself and they have become atheists in the universe [a world without god]; for the same Maximus says: “When the divine and human activity is taken away, there is no God, nor man.” [To Marinus 96B; cf. 201AB] For it is absolutely necessary that the person who says that the activity in God is not different from his essence falls into the trap of atheism. For we know that God is only from His proper activities. Hence, for him who destroys God’s activities and does not admit that they differ from His essence, the necessary consequence is that he does not know that God is. Furthermore, because the great Basil has revealed everywhere in his writings that “no activity can exist independently,” [Against Eunomius 4] those who contend that the essence of God does not differ from His activity, have surpassed even Sabellius in impiety. For he made only the Son and the Spirit without existences (hypostasis), but those people make the essence of God, which has three hypostases, without existence (hypostasis).
If God is simple, the thinking goes, then he cannot be both activity and essence, for that would divide God into composite parts. But St Gregory nicely points out that this proposition collapses in upon itself, for if God can only be one and not the other, then insofar as he is the one he is only nominally the other. But if the reality of God is only in the name given, then there is no God apart from man’s naming, and thus no God.
Nor does it help to combine the terms and call God “active essence.” For if God is essence without activity, then God does not act. And if God does not act, it is impossible to know him. Or if God is activity without essence, then God has no being. And so St Gregory concludes those who pursue this radical simplicity end up in atheism.
Not even the nominalism of Sabellius went so far, claims the Saint. “All” Sabellius did was eliminate the Son and the Spirit. These who pursue absolute (or definitional) divine simplicity eliminate God altogether. That is to say, the Christian God. They might have a “philosopher’s god” they can explicate, a god whose only purpose is to serve as a foil for certain ultimate questions, but who otherwise has no other existence or purpose. The Christian God, the only true God, of course, is no such “philosopher’s god.”
No, the Christian God has no such being as the Barlaamite suggests in the Dialogue. The Christian God is both essence and activity, two aspects of the one reality that is God. For in God is ineffably united his unapproachable essence (“no man can see Me and live”) with his omnipresent activity. God’s essence is hyperousia, supersubstantial, beyond-being, it superabounds in his divine activity. But God’s activity is no creature, it is, rather, God himself. Not God in his essence, wholly and eternally inaccessible to us, but, rather, God who extends himself to us, who acts and reveals himself in that action.
This essence/activity (or, as is more commonly stated, essence/energies) distinction is analogous to the distinction between there being one God in three Trinitarian Persons. Just as we creatures do not and cannot know God except as Three Personed, and yet at the same time understand the Three Persons to be the one God, so, too, we do not and cannot know God except as his activities, except insofar as he reaches out to us in love. Our direct experience of God is only in the Trinitarian Persons: the Spirit unites us to the Son who restores us to the Father. We only know of the oneness of God because the Son tells us of that union, “I and the Father are one.” Similarly, given the Trinitarian revelation of God’s oneness, we would have no knowledge of God save he reveal himself to us. We only know that God exists because he reaches out in love to us. And our experience of God, then, is only of his activities.
But just as our experience of the Christ is an experience of the one God, so, too, the experience of God’s activities (his mercy, his providence, his love, his grace) is the experience of God himself, for God is his activities. His activities are not identical with his essence (we do not have a mathematically simple God), but they are nonetheless God himself.
This self-revelation of God is the critical point, it seems to me. The ramifications of absolute (or definitional) divine simplicity lead us to something less than the Christian God. This sort of simplicity takes its start not from the Church’s experience, but, rather, from the philosopher’s propositions. This is the Pythagorean god or the Plotinian god, not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And although the Saint, in the citation above, does not detail his argument regarding the collapse of philosophical divine simplicity upon itself, he does clearly delineate the outcome: a heresy worse than Sabellian modalism, indeed, atheism itself.
This sort of theologizing, which the Saint excoriates, is typical of those who have a weak ecclesiology, or even none at all. When Christians theologize apart from the received Tradition of the Church, they necessarily risk departing from the Faith once for all delivered to the Saints. Barlaam’s error was not in theologizing per se, nor indeed was it in his desire to safeguard the proper dogma regarding God. Rather, his error was that he started with Aristotle and not the Apostles. It wasn’t so much that his theology was deformed, as it was his ecclesiology was deficient. He did not allow his ecclesiology to frame his theology. And having begun wrong, if he remained consistent, he could not but end up in heresy.
Regrettably, we have still have Barlaamites to this day: Christians who insist on absolute/definitional divine simplicity. They take as their starting point, not the experience of the Church, but, rather, philosophical propositions. They allow the strictures of philosophical dogma (rules about what is and isn’t “simple”) to form their reasoning about God. These modern-day Barlaamites, as did their doctrinal ancestor, ridicule and criticize their opponents (if you will, modern-day Palamites) as being philosophically inconsistent, or having no rigorous philosophical justification for the essence/energies distinction. But in so doing, they only confirm the judgment of the Synods, and the teaching of the “Palamites”–who remain unmoved from the Church’s experience.
The proper methodology, then, in understanding God, is to start with the experience of the Church, and to bound one’s own experience within the Church. There is perhaps little doubt, of course, that all experience of God begins as personal, perhaps even individual, experience. But unless the personal experience of God takes in the ecclesial experience it cannot be a trustworthy experience.
And the ecclesial experience of God is determinative for us, which is why Christians do not hold to the philosopher’s god. Ours is a risen Christ, only begotten Son of the Father, the Son to whom the Holy Spirit unites us. Ours is a God who stretches himself out to us, whom apart from such outward-reaching love we could never know.
And because this God is his activities, and yet is not mathematically identical to them, we participate in him, and yet we are not divested of our personhood. Though forever closed off from his essence, we are in his mercy preserved in our persons, we are united to God by his grace, and in that union are transformed, becoming, quite truly, children of God, and thus divine ourselves.