In a post at Pillar and Ground of the Truth, Fr. Gregory Hogg has compared the statement of St. Augustine in De Trinitate 1.1.3, that it is “difficult” to contemplate and have full knowledge of God’s substance, with the statement of Gregory the Theologian in Theological Orations 28.4 that is is “impossible” to express God and “yet more impossible” to know him. He attributes the difference in the two attitudes (if there really is a difference–more on this anon) to a general difference that he claims to exist between East and West on the question of whether God’s essence can be distinguished from his energies. What are we to make of this analysis?
In this context the word “energies” is just a (rather awkward, though standard) translation of the Greek word energeiai, a technical term in Greek philosophy since the time of Plato that refers to the actualized state of some capacity or other. In short, it refers to a property that something has in actuality. Aristotle, famously, distinguished between two kinds of actualities, what he called first and second actualities, of which only the latter were really energeiai in his argot, and it is this latter sense that is intended, too, in the Christian theological context. The difference between the two kinds may be illustrated with an example. When a human is born, it comes ready-equipped with a capacity for language, but that capacity is in no sense developed at birth. Aristotle calls this sort of capacity a first potentiality. When the child learns his native tongue, that first potentiality is actualized to a certain degree, but that “first actuality” (in which the child has learned his language) is not as complete as the stage at which the capacity for language is actually being used, that is, when the child is actually speaking his native tongue. Hence this first actuality is also called by Aristotle a “second potentiality”, because the faculty of language can be further actualized beyond merely having in one’s mind the vocabulary and grammatical rules of the language. This further actualization comes when the child actually speaks, which is the full actualization of the capacity, and it is this that Aristotle called the second actuality, or energeia.
Thus the properties that we have can be classified as either potentialities or actualities of a certain sort. A further distinction between properties can be drawn between those properties that are causally responsible for a thing being the sort of thing that it is, and those that are merely accidental to some thing. The former sort of properties are called essential properties: without them, the thing would not be thing that it is, but some other kind of thing. The latter are called accidental because any given thing can either have them or not have them while remaining the same kind of thing. So, for example, if we define a human being as a rational animal, then being rational is an essential property: anything that is a human will be rational, and if anything is not rational, it is not a human being. Having blue eyes, by contrast, is an accidental property: a human being may have blue eyes or not, and it will be as fully human as any other human regardless. Some accidental properties are accidental in the sense that they are sometimes true, sometimes not true, of the same thing. A human being may start his life not being a policeman, then get a job as a policeman and be a policeman, and then retire and no longer be a policeman, all the while remaining a human being in every respect.
Neither East nor West denies that God has properties. In the East they are traditionally called energies, while in the West they are usually just called properties. To the extent that God has a nature, God certainly has essential properties, because to have a nature is nothing more than to have essential properties, properties without which a thing would not be the thing that it is. God’s nature, then, just is the totality of the properties that God has. Does God have any accidental properties? Bear in mind that an accidental property is nothing more than a property that either may belong to a certain thing or not belong to that same thing without affecting what that thing essentially is. I may have a full head of hair one day, and then shave it off the next, and yet remain precisely the same thing that I was before my change in hirsuteness. If I have some accidental property as an actuality, necessarily I potentially lack that same property. For example, if I actually have hair, then I potentially lack hair as well; and if I lack hair, then I potentially am hairy. This is true even if I have gone bald: even though I no longer have the capacity to grow hair, it is a feature of the kind of thing I am (human) to be capable of growing hair. So I have a species-specific capacity that in my own peculiar case cannot be actualized due to a material difference between me and other humans. So to be “either-hairy-or-not-hairy”, the disjunctive property of being either the one or the other, may be said to be a property of the kind of thing I am, which raises the possiblity that it is an essential property of some kind, either of humans or of animals generally, but the specific disjunct that is manifested will itself always be an accidental property. Only the disjunction as a whole can be essential, if it is essential.
The principal complaint that Fr. Hogg refers to–that the West insists that there is no distinction between God’s essence and his energies–relies on an equivocation. The equivocation involves the usage of the term “distinction.” Fr. Hogg quotes from Aquinas in support of his claim that the West draws no distinction between God’s essence and his energies: “God is all the things that He has…” (On Spiritual Creatures article 11). Aquinas here uses what some metaphysicians call the language of Izzing and Having to mark the distinction between an essence and a property: what God is is his essence, what God has are his properties. Thus, if God is all the things that he has, his properties are identical to his essence, and the Eastern complaint would appear to be warranted. The equivocation here is this. If by “distinguishing” one thing, p, from another thing, q, we claim that p and q are ontologically distinct from one another, and that p can exist without q and q can exist without p, then there is one sense in which God is not all the things that he has, but there is another sense in which he is all the things that he has. Suppose we say, for example, with the Johannine corpus, that God is love, and with the Matthean tradition that God is mercy. Since love and mercy are not identical to each other, it would seem that God is not identical to himself, which seems absurd. But clearly what is intended here is that love is one of God’s properties and mercy is another, and the two properties are not the same property. Hence, on one way of understanding “distinguish”, we see that it is not true that God is all that he has: it is not the case that God is identical to love or identical to mercy. However, we do not want to say that it is possible for God not to be love or for God not to be mercy, since both claims would be heretical. And yet if “to be love” and “to be mercy” are energies that are not essential to God, then necessarily God can either have them or not have them. But this is impossible. Hence these properties are not accidental to God, they are essential. The same analysis would hold for all of the properties (energies) of God: none of them is accidental. In short, for any property, p, that is a property of God, p is included in God’s essence, and God’s essence just is the conjunction of all properties that God has. In this sense, God is all that he has, just so long as the emphasis is on the word “all”: God is not love, and God is not mercy, but he is “love+mercy+…+”. This (presumably very long) conjunctive property is similar to the disjunctive property I discussed above: although it is analyzable in terms of items that, in human beings at least, are separate, accidental properties, there is nothing other than God that has the whole conjunction of pure actualities as an essence, hence this conjunctive property is unique to God and is God’s essence. Since God cannot lack any of the various items into which we, from a human perspective, might be tempted to analyze the conjunction, the conjunction is a metaphysical unity insofar as it is an essence of something (namely God) that is metaphysically simple. Just as we can analyze the two sides of a bowl into two properties, convex and concave, and yet it is nevertheless impossible to separate the concavity of the one side form the convexity of the other, so too, in the case of God, we may, by analogy, talk of such things as “love” and “mercy” as properties of God, and yet it is nevertheless impossible to separate out all of the elements of that conjunction and assert that they could exist independently from one another qua properties of God (clearly the do exist separately qua human properties, but these properties are only analogous to God’s properties–the names do not mean exactly the same thing in the human case and the divine case).
Fr. Hogg concludes by suggesting that
if we make the distinction between God’s essence and his energies, which the East is committed to, then we can affirm both that we can know God even in this life, by knowing his energies; and that we can never know God in his essence, either in this life or in the age to come.
The West would not disagree that we can have some sort of knowledge of God by knowing his properties, but this passage is unclear as to whether what is meant is God’s properties qua properties of God, or God’s properties qua properties of non-God things to which we attach the same property name by analogy. For example, God is love, and we know what love is in our own case (and principally from Christ’s example), so we know God (a little) by virtue of knowing one of his properties, namely love. But as we have already seen, the property name “love” must mean something different when applied to humans, because no human being is love (except for the one human being who was also God). The West would also agree that we can never know God in his essence, if what is meant by that is to understand, in a non-analogous way, the full meaning of the massive conjunction that is God’s essence. As we have seen, every element of that conjunction can be given a separate property name, and we can have some knowledge of those properties, but (a) those properties all individually mean something else in God’s case than they do in our case and (b) God’s essence is in any event not those individual properties taken individually but rather the conjunction of all of them taken as a metaphysical unity, which is a little hard to get one’s mind around.
The West would agree, too, with the ordo theologiae that takes Christ to be the starting point for all such analysis as this. When Gregory writes “it is impossible to express him, and yet more impossible to conceive him,” we must be careful, since impossibility does not come in degrees. What must be meant is rather that it is easier to express than to conceive in God’s case, and this must be a reference to the fact that language is always a kind of analogy, whereas understanding may, in certain kinds of cases, be direct. Hence, it may be possible to express God in an analogous way, but this is not really to express him, since no analogy is the same as its object. But in the case of understanding, if what one has is analogous then it is not really understanding at all. We know love in the human form from our own experience, but Christ gave us a living example of love in God’s form. But to the extent that this revelation is mediated by the Incarnation, our understanding of God’s love is still analogical. Christ’s example transforms our flawed human sense of the property into something closer to the divine paradigm, but at present we see only darkly, as through a mirror. Only in the eschaton will we see him face to face, and know him as we are known by him.