The Knowability of God: The Importance of the Essence-Energies Distinction
The development of the Essence-Energies Distinction in the Cappadocians and where we see Neo-arianism today.
The Christological controversies of the fourth century facilitated the rise of two exceptionally different theories about the knowledge of God; one held to a kind of radical apophaticism, claiming that God is totally unknowable (the early Arians, led by Arius), the other to the exact opposite, proclaiming that the name “unbegotten” reveals His substance (the later Arians, led by Aetius and Eunomius). Opposed as these two theories were, both were a by-product of the same agenda: to subordinate the Son to the Father. Reacting against what they perceived to be a resurgence of Sabellianism in the Church, they taught that the Son is not of the same essence as the Father – a theology that came to be known as heteroousianism.1
The “originator of these disputations,” a deacon in Alexandria named Arius (A.D. 256–336), affirmed that “there is a Triad, [but they are] not in equal glories.”2 For Arius, there is only one God, the Monad, Who is ineffable (ἄῤῥητος) to all of creation, including the Son,3 Who is classed among the creatures (κτίσμα) as one “[Who] was made out of that which had no prior existence.”4 The Son was begotten by the will of God – by which reason alone God is given the title “Ingenerate” (or Father)5 – as “a beginning of things originated; and advanced [by] Him as a Son to Himself by adoption.”6 As such, He is not “the natural and true power of God”7 but is only called so “conceptually” in that He “partake[s] of it” as all other creatures do, by grace.8 Thus, “having drawn [these] inference[s] from his novel train of reasoning,” Arius forced his error into vestiture of Scripture,9 “excit[ing] many to a consideration of the question…under the pretext of piety.”10
Eventually, Arius’ speculations would be summed up with the phrase “there was a time when He [the Son] was not”11 – the theology behind which the later Arians adopted as their own.12 But in order to preserve this theological position they were forced to change their strategy;13 instead of maintaining that the Father is incomprehensible to all, including the Only-Begotten Son, a position shown by St. Athanasius to be untenable,14 they proclaimed that the knowledge of God, as He is in His essence, is accessible to all creatures through reason.15
This idea was advanced by a bishop of Cyzicus named Eunomius (A.D. 335–393),16 who claimed that God’s essence is discoverable through an investigation into the names ascribed to Him.17 For by reason of His simplicity, “his substance is the very same as that which is signified by his name.”18 What such an investigation supposedly reveals is that the essence of the unbegotten God is unbegottenness19 – for this is “a name” which is said neither by way of privation nor invention nor conceptualization, but in accordance with what God actually is.20 It follows, then, that the essence of the Only-begotten is begottenness which “proves” that He is neither homoousios nor homoiousios as the Unbegotten God.21 Because of this, Eunomius preferred to use the term “Unbegotten” instead of “Father” in order to build a foundation for his blasphemy.22
Compelled to respond in order to expose this “subtle deceit,” St. Basil the Great (A.D. 330–379) points out that, though these two terms “mean the same thing,”23 it was the name “Father,” not “Unbegotten,” that was revealed.24 For all at once, the title “‘Father’ signif[ies]…that he is the cause and principle of the one begotten,”25 with the added benefit of implying a relationship to Him.26 Thus, while the names “Father” and “Son” affirm certain “distinguishing marks”27 in God, they neither divide, nor reveal, His substance,28 “[which] transcends not only human beings but every rational nature.”29
For St. Basil, even though the substance of God is known only to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, man can come to know Him by His energies (His activities in the world) which “come down to us.”30 He writes:
We say that we know the greatness of God, His power, His wisdom, His goodness, his providence over us, and the justness of His judgment; but not His very essence…For he who denies that he knows the essence does not confess himself to be ignorant of God, because our idea of God is gathered from all the attributes which I have enumerated. [For] His operations come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach.31
Here, Basil follows Athanasius’ distinction between theologia and economia, allowing him to make the essence-energies distinction, both of which are Uncreated but the latter of which is knowable to created beings. Contra Arius and Eunomius, who believed only the Father was Uncreated, Basil again follows Athanaius’ lead by noting that the only God is uncreated – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – while everything else is created.32
According to Basil, we come to know God by his activity in the world, on which account “he calls himself by different names at different times…on the basis of his different activities” in order to reveal aspects of “what truly belongs to [Him].”33 Yet these names of God do not reveal his substance. If they did, we would have to grant that “creative power,” “foreknowledge,” and “providence,” would “all…converge upon a single meaning…[and] each of the names is deprived of its proper signification.”34 No,
there is not one name which encompasses the entire nature of God and suffices to express it adequately. Rather, there are many diverse names, and each one contributes, in accordance with its own meaning, to a notion that is altogether dim and trifling as regards the whole but that is at least sufficient for us. Some of the names applied to God are indicative of what is present to God; others, on the contrary, of what is not present. From these two something like an impression of God is made in us, namely, from the denial of what is incongruous with him and from the affirmation of what belongs to him.35
Thus, while it is not possible for man to contemplate God’s substance,36 he can learn by these “two forms of designation” what is present or not present in God37 – and he can come to know Him through His Son,38 “[Who is] the light [that] enlightens all things by its radiance.”39
Eunomius’ capital offense, though, is that he claims the Begotten Light differs from the Unbegotten Light “as much as the begotten from the unbegotten.”40 And from this, he claims that there was a time when the Begotten Light, the Radiance of God’s glory,41 did not exist.42 Thus, the main threat of Eunomius’ system is that it severs man’s connection to the Uncreated God.43 For Christ, the God-man, is this connection; even in times of old it was He Who, under the title “Angel of the Lord,” brought the knowledge of God to man – for it was He Who revealed, from the Bush, the Divine Name: “I AM.”44
Here, Basil follows Athanasius’ interpretive key in explaining the “Angel of the Lord” noting that “where the same one is designated both ‘angel’ and ‘God,’ it is the Only-Begotten Who is revealed”45 – and this interpretive key can be found in even earlier Fathers such as Justin the Martyr,46 Irenaeus,47 and later on in Gregory of Nyssa.48 Interestingly, it appears that Saint Augustine agrees here with Eunomius – that the messenger is created intermediary.49
The main point in all of this, for Basil, is that the Father and Son cannot be separated by substance or interval,50 but must be distinguished from one another. The names “Father” and “Son” reveal the “distinguishing marks” as “unbegottenness” and “begottenness” but imply, relationally, that they share the same “formula of divinity,”51 for “the union consists in the communion of the Godhead.”52 Herein lies Basil’s genius: while refuting heteroousianism by affirming the homoousian language of Nicea,53 he clarifies the language by separating ousia and hypostasis,54 uniting the latter to prosopon in order to show that the Persons of the Trinity are not masks, but have real subsistence.55 By using Athanasius’ distinction between theologia and economia, St. Basil confesses that God is both known and unknown. And in this way, he carefully illuminates the narrow path between Sabellianism and Arianism on the one hand and the differing theological epistemologies of Arius and Eunomius on the other.
Thus, when asked the perennial question, “Do you worship what you know or what you do not know?” Basil could answer that
the word to know has many meanings. We say that we know the greatness of God, His power, His wisdom, His goodness, his providence over us, and the justness of His judgment; but not His very essence…For he who denies that he knows the essence does not confess himself to be ignorant of God, because our idea of God is gathered from all the attributes which I have enumerated. [For] His operations come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach.56
This is a watershed moment in the quest to develop a theologically precise language57 – for in the language of both Nicea and Athanasius, who sought to establish the oneness of God, ousia and hypostasis were used interchangeably, as they were also by Sebelius, for which reason concern grew over the term homoousios.58 But in distinguishing them, Basil was able to distinguish, in a real sense, the Father from the Son from the Holy Spirit, not as masks, nor as different substances, but as three distinct person-hypostases in one substance.
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