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What Are the Divine Energies?

This talk was originally presented at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (October 2022). I am grateful to Dr Ionut Alexandru Tudorie for the invitation, and to the faculty and students of SVOTS for their hospitality, generosity, and stimulating conversation. A transcription of the lecture is presented here in anticipation of the feast of St Gregory Palamas, celebrated each year on the second Sunday of the Fast.[1] The talk stems from my recent book, Essence and Energies: Being and Naming God in St Gregory Palamas (Routledge, 2022), which should be consulted for further detail on the ideas presented here. The photos included herein were taken on a recent visit to Thessaloniki.

You can download this lecture as a PDF here.


What are the Divine Energies?

Tikhon Alexander Pino

The language of “energies” has become immensely popular, not to say fashionable, in modern Orthodox discourse, both popular and academic. After spending several of the last centuries in the shadow of Western Scholastic theology, Orthodox theology, it would seem, found its distinctive voice in the twentieth century especially through a re-orientation of its language and core theological paradigms. Along with new, or newly-centralized, terms like Sobornost, synodality, phronema, nous, antinomy, mystery, and the like, came the seemingly novel language of “uncreated energies.” Whether consciously or not, this language served the double purpose of distancing Orthodox theology from the overly rational or rationalistic and philosophical notions of God that prevailed in the West, on the one hand, and of connoting, on the other hand, some of the most vibrant and mystical elements of Eastern religion, imbuing Eastern Christianity with some of the more esoteric and exotic features of oriental spiritual practices.[2]

To put it more simply, not only did the category of “uncreated energies” allow Orthodox theology to reject what Lossky called the “concept-attributes with which God is credited in the abstract and sterile theology of the manuals,”[3] but it also gave to our marginalized Orthodox tradition something akin to the Shakti of Hinduism and Yoga: a category of deeply alluring and mysterious forces emanating from God like so many electrical currents penetrating the cosmos and radiating through the very person of the saints and, indeed, our very selves when we become transfigured by prayer and theosis. What better word for such a concept than “energies”? Who would not long to be energized by the presence and indwelling of God, like a burst and infusion of ineffable power? And who would not prefer such realities to the dry, abstract concepts of the Scholastics, who, we are told, would rather put the Deity in a box and understand him than experience the power of the living God?

But what exactly are these “energies” that modern Orthodox are so fond of talking about, not to say obsessed with? The question is at the heart of my recent book, which stems from my doctoral research, on the distinction between God’s essence and energies in the theology of St Gregory Palamas (1296-1357).

I never thought that I would end up writing about the essence-energies distinction of St Gregory. This, I thought for a long time, would be far too cliché. Not only was this one of the topics par excellence on which armchair theologians and internet apologists were most fixated, but surely there were more subtle, underexplored topics in patristic and Byzantine theology than “essence and energies”! If there were a category that had been done to death, I thought, surely it was the supremely stereotypical topic of essence and energies. Indeed, what could be more predictable and unimaginative than an Orthodox graduate student doing a thesis on essence and energies?

But there was an angle to Hesychast or Palamite theology, and to the essence-energies distinction, that interested me, and which was not nearly as well-trafficked; and this was the wider school of Palamite or pro-Palamite theologians that not only worked alongside St Gregory Palamas but continued to explain his essence-energies distinction for a century after his death, right up to the fall of Constantinople and beyond. This Palamite school included not only lesser-known and somewhat neglected figures like St Philotheos Kokkinos, Joseph Kalothetos, and Kallistos Angelikoudes, but even more well-known Fathers and theologians, like Symeon of Thessalonica and the ever popular Mark of Ephesus. I was inspired in this by the work of John Demetracopoulos, whose stimulating article, “Palamas Transformed,” traced the reception of the essence-energies distinction in nearly a dozen writers who were crucial for the transmission and promotion of Palamite theology in late Byzantium.[4] Thus when I started my doctoral research, I thought, in my naivete, that I would engage this same question in an even fuller study, producing a comprehensive overview of the Palamite school and the elaboration of the essence-energies distinction as a collaborative and ecclesial project. I would have one chapter, I thought, on Palamas and a chapter for each of the major architects and defenders of the essence-energies distinction after him—a kind of Palamite patrology. And so, like all overambitious young scholars, I proceeded to tackle my first chapter (a single chapter) by reading everything that St Gregory Palamas ever wrote. A sound approach to succinct writing if ever there was one.

I thus began this very efficient process by attempting to track, first of all, the language that Palamas uses for these ἐνέργειαι. I wanted to know, in a very basic way, what Palamas meant when he spoke of “energies” and what things went by this name. In its present form, this part of the project constitutes Chapter 2 of the book, a fact that hints at how unwieldy my initial project was, for instead of producing a single chapter on St Gregory Palamas, I had begun to uncover what I felt was an entire chapter’s worth of new information and details just about the language of energies. Needless to say, actually reading St Gregory’s writings not just cover to cover, but cover to cover to cover to cover, five times over (for Gregory’s writings on essence and energies fill five volumes in the printed edition) yielded revelation after revelation. And I quickly discovered that, in spite of the ink that had been spilled not only by would-be theologians but by eminent scholars over the past hundred years, no one had ever simply gone through and given a straightforward, comprehensive account of what Palamas himself actually says, not only about the essence-energies distinction as a whole, but even about this much-beloved and much-abused term, “energies.” And it was thus that my chapter on St Gregory Palamas turned into a monograph.

What are These Energies?

But what did I find? What, according to St Gregory Palamas, are the divine energies? Or, to put it another way, what does St Gregory Palamas have in mind when he talks about God’s energies? The first thing to note when we talk about “energies” is that, although this word is exotic (in a theological context) for us, it was not exotic for the Church Fathers, for theologians in Byzantium, or for the entirety of the Greek theological tradition. Ἐνέργεια, the basic term under discussion, is, like its counterpart οὐσία, a technical term of both Trinitarian theology and Christology. Just like the term “essence” or “substance,” ἐνέργεια is used from the beginning of the dogmatic tradition and forms an integral part of the Orthodox theological lexicon. In the West, of course, for reasons that have been discussed at length, the word doesn’t really “make it.” Though we have substantia and essentia in the Western tradition, we don’t really see a whole lot of operatio in its technical sense. Karl Rahner’s massive Dictionary of Theology, for example, has no entry for energy or operation, though it comes up in the Cappadocians, in St Maximos the Confessor, and elsewhere, and was a central part of the Eunomian and Monothelite controversies. Indeed, given the prominent role of the Church of Rome in the latter controversy, it is somewhat amazing that the concept of energeia simply did not get cemented in the theological vocabulary of the West in the same way that it did in the Greek. This is like not having a word for hypostasis or intellect.

Hagia Sophia in Thessalonica, where St Gregory Palamas would have preached as Archbishop of the city.

Yet all of this is simply to say that for St Gregory Palamas, unlike us modern Westerners, energeia was not some special category or term. He certainly does not invent it, obviously. But neither does the word take on some special technical significance in Palamas; and this is not because he doesn’t bring his own emphases and usage to the long tradition of talking about God’s energeia, but because he does not draw on this word to do something novel or hyper-specialized, anymore than talking about the Trinity “one in essence” would have been jargony or hyper-specialized in fourteenth-century Byzantium, regardless of its unique appropriation by a certain author.

The second point to be made is that, when people think about the divine energeia today, they are often referring to a specific energeia, namely what Palamas calls the deifying energy of God. Because we associate the theology of St Gregory Palamas, and the doctrine of uncreated energies, with the debates over Hesychasm, for one, and the debates over the Light of Thabor, for two, we tend to identify energeia with this energy, namely the uncreated light experienced by the hesychasts in prayer, which is the same light, of course, that shines from Christ’s body at the Transfiguration. As I have just said, this is the deifying energy of God, the “brilliance of the divine nature” that the apostles were permitted to behold in ecstasy.

We should point out at this juncture that, for St Gregory Palamas, this uncreated light, which he calls “the natural comeliness or beauty of God” is also identified with divine grace, that is, the grace of regeneration that is given to all Christians in baptism as the earnest or pledge of the kingdom of heaven, planted in all of us from the moment of our initiation into Christ. That this grace is not experienced by us in the same way as the saints or mystics (who experience what Palamas calls “spiritual sensation”) is due not to the character and identity of the deifying energy itself, but to the level of our personal spiritual transformation and the development (or rather, the transcendence – or lack thereof) of our own individual powers and faculties.

The city of Thessalonica seen from the Monastery of the Vlatadon

But it would be a mistake to limit our understanding of the divine energies to the light we call deifying grace. This is a common mistake that often causes problems for our understanding of how the concept of energeia fits into our wider theological vision. To give just one example, if we think of “energies” as only the deifying emanations whereby the saints are united to God, then it becomes difficult to see how the concept of “energies” aligns with another favorite concept, the doctrine of the logoi familiar from St Maximos. The logoi, of course, are not forces that come down to us and deify us. They are the principles of creatures (found in God himself), as the divine intentions and wills, as Maximos says, for every creature and for every stratum and grouping of created being. What does such a concept have to do with the uncreated garment of incorruption bestowed on the faithful in baptism and developed through a life of virtue? Much, it turns out, but not because the two are simply identical.

Though we are accustomed to thinking about the divine energies in terms of deification, hesychast transformation, and the vision of uncreated light, St Gregory himself is clear that, even in his early debates with Barlaam, the scope of the controversy was not exclusively about the deifying light of Thabor. This is even more the case in the debates with Akindynos and the philosopher Nikephoros Gregoras, who are not so much opponents of the hesychast monks as errant metaphysicians confused about the divine being. “Our struggle with the gainsayers,” Palamas says, “is not only about deifying grace, but about every divine power and energy. For they denigrate all of them to [the level of] creatures.”[5]

Other Energies

So what other divine energies are there besides the deifying illumination that we call grace and the kingdom of heaven? The list is a bit surprising, and I would suggest that it problematizes what we normally think of as energeia and challenges us to reconsider what a word like “energies” could possibly mean. The list of things that Palamas calls “energies” includes some predictable things: the creative power (indeed, creativity itself), the retributive power, foreknowledge, mercy, justice, God’s healing, truth, wisdom, love, the divine will.[6]

The 14th-century Monastery of the Vlatadon, founded by disciples of St Gregory Palamas

One of the most common questions that gets asked about the divine energies is, “How do we translate the term energeia? “Energy,” as we’ve already discussed, connotes something quasi-material or physical in our modern lexicon, as well as something a bit esoteric. But we know that the word, as coined by Aristotle, simply means activity, in the sense of actuality or realized potential. Thus it is sometimes asked whether the divine energies are not simply the “activities” of God. Some have even suggested that “essence” is what God is, whereas “energies” are what God does. And the list just enumerated certainly sounds like the characteristic “activities” of God. Who is God if not the one who creates, who enacts justice, who loves mankind, and who bestows his mercy on us?

But the list of energies is complicated by the presence of things that do not seem so much like activities as abstract attributes or properties of God. The divine “energies” in Palamas also include simplicity, immutability, incorporeality, and similar attributes

Such things certainly do not sound like things that God “does,” at least not in the colloquial sense. Indeed, they sound more like the Scholastic descriptions of the impersonal Deus unus than like the dynamic and living properties of the God of the Bible.

So what ties all these energies together? I suggest that looking beyond the language of “energies,” on which we have become so thoroughly fixated, is helpful here, because one of the most important facts about the writings of St Gregory Palamas is that he himself is not myopically fixated on the language of energies. This is not to say that he does not use the word, of course, or that it is not the primary technical term for talking about these attributes of God. But it is certainly not the only term. And looking at this broader vocabulary for talking about these “energies” can shed a lot of light on what Palamas actually means by this term.

The first term we should note that Palamas uses interchangeably with “energy” is the word “power” (δύναμις). Now, for those familiar with Aristotle, equating dynamis and energeia is a little unusual, at least for those of us trained in the strictures of Scholastic theology, where potency or dynamis is often the exact opposite of energeia or actuality. Yet whenever Palamas calls something an “energy,” he also calls it a dynamis. Thus, the creative operation (energeia) of God is identified with the creative power of God; the sustaining operation of God is his sustaining power; and so on.

One of the things that this identification of energy and power accomplishes is to open up the concept of “energies” to be thought of more as faculties of God than “activities” in the colloquial sense. And this makes particular sense because God is Creator from all eternity, just his mercy “endures forever,” being eternal attributes of the uncreated God. Yet the world itself is not eternal; neither are the sinners who require God’s mercy. And so the “energies” of creativity and mercy cannot be things that God does or actions that God performs in time. They must characterize him from all eternity. Thus, if creating is a faculty that characterizes God rather than just an action that God performs, then this would go a long way towards explaining how God’s “energies” can be eternal and uncreated, since they are his eternal powers or inherent δυνάμεις.

Another critically important way of talking about the divine energies involves language that connects these divine powers to the very nature, essence, or being of God. In this way the divine energies, as powers or faculties, are identified, as a category, with “the things around the divine essence,” “the things around the nature,” or more succinctly, “the things around God.” This is because the attributes of creativity, holiness, immortality, life, peace, and so on, are attributes of the very essence of God (whereby God is God), attributes that are shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit insofar as they are attributes of the Godhead. Palamas will speak for this reason of the divine energies as “all that the Father has,” which is shared equally by the Son (Jn 6:37).

In all these ways, the divine energies are not just actions of God but the idioms (ἰδιώματα) or attributes of God. And these therefore include everything that can be said of God in his nature, and everything that is true of God. It is thus that the “energies” include such seemingly abstract and even negative attributes as incorporeality, immutability, and simplicity. These are “energies” of God not because he “performs” them in time, but as the eternal attributes, properties, and idioms of the Godhead, which characterize the Son and the Holy Spirit just as they characterize the Father, by nature and from all eternity.

The Metropolitan Cathedral of St Gregory Palamas, Thessaloniki

Why “Energies”?

Now, you may be thinking that, at this point, we seem pretty far from the notion of activity or actuality associated with the word energeia. Creation, judgment, providence—these we understand as “energies.” But if what Palamas is talking about is simply all the divine attributes that characterize God by nature, why does he use the word “energies” at all?[7]

The answer comes, in part, when we look at the dichotomy between potency and act. We have already seen that the very language of energy in St Gregory Palamas disrupts the simplistic opposition between a faculty and its exercise. Palamas, of course, does not understand these things in what we might characterize as a neo-Aristotelian or popular Thomistic framework. But the identification of dynamis and energeia took place long before Palamas, in the crucible of Neoplatonism, which put Aristotelian categories into deeper conversation and interplay with the paradigms and framework of Platonism. Perhaps more importantly, already in Aristotle himself we see the groundwork for understanding potency or faculties as a form of actuality. We see this especially vividly in De anima 2.1, where the seeing power of an eye – its vision, or that which makes a healthy working eye – is described as the actuality or entelechy of the eye. And this is regardless of whether the eye is closed or its owner is asleep. An eye, in other words, is “in act” not only when a person is looking and beholding but whenever the eye is, of itself, a seeing eye, distinguished from the eye of a blind person, in which the eye has no power to see and, thus, is not an eye in actuality.

The divine energies in God, understood as powers and natural attributes, are actualities precisely in this sense. God does not begin to be Creator, or begin to be merciful, only when the first atoms or the first angels are brought into being. He is Creator from all eternity, just as an artist does not need to be actively painting to be artist, or a priest does not have to be actively celebrating the Divine Liturgy to be a priest.

Palamas draws an analogy with our own rationality and decision-making. Just as logos is both the word that we utter and the reason or rational faculty that is active within us and characterizes our being, so energeia can denote both outward activity and the inner working or operation that characterizes an essence or nature. Boulē, too, is both our outward decision and counsel as well as the human will within us, which constitutes our inner functioning and operation regardless of whether we spout advice or make explicit outward choices.

Energies “of” the Essence

A key point here is that God does not have passive potency, the principal of mutability and change. God’s dynamis is not the kind of “potentiality” that passes from non-being into being, or from mere potency to actuality. He does not become the Creator by creating, etc. Rather, in God, dynamis, like the seeing power of a healthy eye, or the logos and will that characterizes human beings, is already always an actuality and thus already always “in act.” It is for this reason that the divine powers and all the other divine attributes are also “energies.” They are eternally active, even if not outwardly manifested, because My Father, as Christ says, is always working, and I also am working (Jn 5:17).[8] God, for St Gregory Palamas, is always in act, and that is why another Palamite theologian, St Mark of Ephesos will even say that God is, in this sense, actus purus, because God does not move from potential to actual, since the attributes that characterize God from eternity are always in motion, not outwardly but as the inward operation of his very being.

So what does this mean for the aphairematika, that is, the negations and seemingly abstract attributes and energies of simplicity, immutability, and so on? This remains a bit of an open question. But there are a few points that must be kept in mind. On the one hand, it is true that Palamas does use the term energeia a bit more expansively than many of the Fathers who came before him. For Palamas, unlike St Cyril of Alexandria, for example, and St John of Damascus, energeia is a category that includes literally everything that can be and is known or said of God, both affirmatively or by negation.[9] This is one of the unique features or contributions of St Gregory Palamas, who consolidates this language and makes it much more systematic.

But it must also be borne in mind that all of these attributes or properties of God have a certain relationship to the divine nature and essence, which is that they not only surround and characterize the nature of God, but they are also derived from the nature or essence of God. For whatever can be known or said of God is transcended by and, in a sense, “produced” by the divine essence, which is their source or principle. Thus even the unity, goodness, and simplicity that mark the divine essence (and which can be imparted to creatures) are products of the divine essence.

The Greek term for these derivatives of the divine essence is ἔργα (erga, Lat. opera, etymologically connected to energeia/operatio). Literally, these are the “works” of God, so that even the unity, goodness, and simplicity that mark the divine essence are “works” of the Lord, albeit “the works that God did not begin to do,” as St Maximos the Confessor tells us in his Theological Chapters 1.48.[10] This phrase is of course meant to serve as a counterpoint to what we learn in Genesis about the works that God began to do (Gen 2:3), which are the created effects of his energy and which have a beginning in time. The divine energies, on the other hand, have no beginning or starting point. They flow from the divine essence from all eternity, even as God’s “work,” once again evoking John 5:17: My Father is always working, and I also am working.

What is most significant about conceiving these negations-energies (simplicity, immutability, and so on) as erga or derivatives of the divine essence is that they, too, as something other than the divine essence itself, can be shared with us. Since they are transcended by the divine nature as such (so that God always remains distinctly God), we too can enter into and share in these eternal activities. This transitus from our activity into the eternal “works” of God is what Scripture and the Fathers call “entering into God’s rest.” This Sabbath of the soul, as St Gregory Palamas also calls it, is not only a cessation from our own labors in favor of the eternal works of God, but a departure even from the works which God began to do, namely the created world. We too, in other words, can be characterized by the eternal energies and operations of holiness, goodness, and even simplicity, by participation. Because God in his essence always remains beyond these attributes, we too can come to partake by grace of everything that radiates eternally from the supernatural and transcendent essence of God, who is the ever-moving cause of all things and who shares himself fully with those deemed worthy of his adoption.

You can download this lecture as a PDF here.


[1] St Gregory Palamas, who died directly after the feast of St John Chrysostom, is also celebrated on November 14. The Life of Palamas, written by his disciple St Philotheos Kokkinos, a native Thessalonian and Patriarch of Constantinople, is now available in English. See Norman Russell, Gregory Palamas: The Hesychast Controversy and the Debate with Islam (Liverpool University Press, 2021). [2] The history of the modern interpretation of the essence-energies distinction can be found in Chapter 1 of my book. [3] Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (London: James Clarke, 1957; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976), 79.

[4] “Palamas Transformed. Palamite Interpretations of the Distinction between God’s ‘Essence’ and ‘Energies’ in Late Byzantium,” in M. Hinterberger and Ch. Schabel, eds. Greeks, Latins, and Intellectual History 1205– 1500 (Leuven: Peeters, 2011), 263–372.

[5] Epistle to Dionysios 11 (Γρηρορίου τοῦ Παλαμᾶ συγγράματα 2:489.19–22). [6] A full list can be found in Pino, Essence and Energies, 59.

[7] This is the subject of Pino, Essence and Energies, Chapter 3.

[10] See Pino, Essence and Energies, 69.


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