Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics and About God

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1. The Cappadocians’ perceptions of God’s “being”

b. Essence, Energy and Person


We have seen three basic distinctions in terminology, which are analyzed even further by three other distinctions, which we encounter in the Cappadocian Fathers and especially in Saint Gregory the Theologian.

These distinctions are made, for the following reason.  The Arians -and in fact the Eunomians - brought up the following issue with the Orthodox: Does the Son denote the essence, or the energy of God?  If the Orthodox had replied that He denotes the essence, then they could not discern between the Son and the Father.  If they had said that He is the name of an energy, then they were at risk of accepting the Son as a creation. Faced with this pressure, Saint Gregory stressed in his third homily that the Son is neither the name of an essence, nor of an energy; He is the name of a relationship. But it is interesting to see how these are discerned; how these three names are defined.

Saint Gregory the Theologian on this same point and these three distinctions gives us his own definition of each of these names. They are subtle philosophical meanings, however, these distinctions are very important.

He says that “essence” is that which is self-subsistent inside every single thing. It is that thing, which one can refer to uniquely, with regard to its own, unique existence.  God’s essence can be understood in this sense, regarding His uniqueness. That is what is meant by “that which is self-subsistent in every single thing”.

He says that “energy” is “that which is perceivable in other things”; it is something that is understood and is found inside something else. One could also say that this thing that is observed “in others” (or, the ‘event’ as we call it – as known in Hellenic Philosophy) leads us into the concept of “relationship” or association. 

Despite all these things that refer to the person or the hypostasis, which he calls ‘association’, he clearly distinguishes them from the essence and from the energy. The person or the hypostasis is neither an essence, nor an energy. What is it then?  In order to see what it is, we must see what it is NOT, with respect to the other two.  We must see whether the essence is something self-existent and self-subsistent, in order to speak of the essence per se of a being.  God is a divine essence.  It is not compulsory, to relate the Divine essence –in our minds- with any other essence, in order for us to refer to the essence. 

Since the person is not an essence, it must therefore be something that cannot be understood as existing on is own; it is not self-subsistent.  If it was self-subsistent, it would have been an essence.  Thus, since it is not an essence, it cannot be understood on its own.  We cannot isolate it.  When you want to speak of a person,  you need to simultaneously refer to another being. You cannot refer to it alone.  Whereas with the essence, you can refer to one, single essence, on its own.  With a person or a hypostasis, you cannot. On the other hand though, it is not an energy either. And why isn’t it an energy?  Because it is not in communion with other beings, so that we can find it elsewhere.  Let’s take a look at this mysterious fabrication.

On' the one hand, the person cannot exist without any communion with other beings, without an association. On the other hand, that which is a person cannot be found in another person,  whereas an energy can. And an energy can be common to both. Nature and essence are both common; however, the essence can also logically be defined on its own. This is what denotes the essence. 

Thus, the person –the hypostasis- denotes an identity, a being, which, albeit unable to exist on its own, cannot be perceived on its own, yet at the same time cannot be found elsewhere. While it cannot exist on its own, at the same time, it cannot be found elsewhere, except in its self.  In other words, its self is so unique, so unprecedented, so much itself, that nobody else can be what it is.  The Father cannot be the Son, or the Spirit.  The Son cannot be the Father, or the Spirit.  The terms: ‘Father’, ‘Son’ and ‘Spirit’ denote different hypostases or persons; they are so unique and unprecedented, that the paradox and most significant thing about them is that they cannot be found in those entities with which they have no association: they simply do not exist. Because, if the Father is not in a relationship with the Son, He ceases to exist.  And even so, He still is not the Son.

That is the person,  i.e., it is the identity that is born of a relationship - of a communion with another entity - which results in non-communing, entities, in the sense that the one entity cannot be found within the other; neither can it be found, if not in any association with the other, because if that relationship is interrupted, then the existence of that person is also interrupted.  So, if the person or the hypostasis is neither an essence nor an energy, then it must not be self-subsistent either; in other words, one cannot refer to the person singly, without relating it to something else, nor refer to it as an energy, in the sense that it can be found inside something else.

For example, the energy of God.  Let’s examine one of His energies: His power.  His power as an energy can be found in all three Persons, and it is indeed found in all three Persons.  It can also be found outside of God; it can act outside of God. This is called an ‘event’, i.e., that which we can also find outside of the essence (which essence possesses the energy), while the essence is distinguished from the energy, in that we cannot find it outside of the essence.  We cannot find God’s essence inside creation. We can however find God’s energy inside creation.  The energy is that which can be communed, even outside the essence.  The essence cannot be communed; it denotes self-subsistence; it cannot be categorized outside itself, because it will cease to be the essence of that being.

So, can the person be communed?  Well, yes and no. The person cannot exist, if there is no communion and relationship – in other words, if it doesn’t associate with other persons.  One person equals no person.  One essence, yes. And one energy, yes (when referring to its results). But one person,  one hypostasis, equals no person.   Hence, there needs to be a communion of more than one, in order to have persons.

But in this communion, each person does have its so-called hypostatic features (its personal characteristics), which cannot be communed. The Father cannot impart His paternity to the Son, nor His features. These hypostatic features - of the ‘Father’, the Son’ and the ‘Holy Spirit’, or, ‘non-birth’, ‘birth’ and “procedure from’ - none of them can be communed, or imparted.  Why? Because each one of the Persons is a unique and singular identity.  If it is substituted by something else, then it ceases to be that unique identity.  That is why, in regard to this association, which denotes the hypostasis or the person,  the Fathers or the Cappadocians used the expression “selfsame”.

At first glance, this “selfsame” appears to conflict with association.  If we are defining the person with respect to an association, how can we define it as “selfsame” at the same time?  And yet, the “selfsame” springs from an association.  The notion of association is such that it creates a “selfsame”, a uniqueness, a sameness, something that is non-communable, which cannot be communed. Therefore, without communing with the other persons - without any association – this “selfsame” cannot exist.  Thus, each person of the Holy Trinity is unique, singular, irreplaceable, precisely because it is in an incessant communion and association with the other persons. Thus, if you sever that communion, you lose the hypostasis.  Communion, therefore, is a prerequisite of the hypostasis. On the other hand, this communion creates particularity - selfsame beings - which, when communing with them, when imparting the characteristics of the one to the other, you lose them.  These are the basic items, and this is the way that these terms are used in Patristic Theology.

We shall see what these basic principles are, during the utilization of these terms in Triadology. Because all the things we just said are fine, and a philosopher will find them palpable to a certain point.  But when we apply them to Triadology, that is when the continuity of Hellenic Philosophy is broken.

So, what are the basic principles that the Fathers introduced, when utilizing these terms, which we analyze during their implementation in Dogmatics and especially in the Dogma regarding God?

The first principle – as we already mentioned earlier – is that the “what is” (i.e., the essence or the nature) of God cannot be known, it cannot be conceived or comprehended by the mind. This was naturally accepted by Neo-Platonism to an extent, but, it was a basic principle of Hellenic Philosophy, of Hellenic thought, that one can come to know the essence of beings; that it can be accomplished with the mind, which, having conceived the idea, is led to the essence of beings.

In other words, in order to ‘know’ the essence of this table, to know “what it is”, then, according to Hellenic Philosophy – if I am Platonically predisposed – I will look for the idea of ‘table’ within that very table. The table itself, no matter how much it surpasses the actual table, nevertheless with my mind –which mind can surpass the being: the objective, the revelatory being(- I can perceive the imaginary table. The more that my mind is pure, and cleansed of material things, the more I can reach and perceive the imaginary, the mental images.

If I am predisposed by Aristotle, then I will look for the essence of the table in its material hypostasis. Within this material, this specific table, there are certain natural laws that supposedly cause it to be a table. The conceiving of these laws can be halted, by the mind. But, by elaborating the natural and the objective laws (and not the imaginary ones), it is possible to conceive the essence in this other way.

According to the Hellenic Fathers (if we go to the Western Fathers it is a different situation, where we will examine in our future lessons how Western Theology placed itself on this issue, whereas the Eastern Fathers are very clear), the “what is”, (the essence) of God cannot be conceived, cannot be comprehended with the mind. “the Divine is infinite and unintelligible, and only one thing about it is intelligible: its infinity and its unintelligibility.” Άπειρον το Θείον και ακατάληπτον και έν μόνο αυτού καταληπτού η απειρία και η ακαταληψία αυτού») (John the Damascene).  We cannot comprehend something by means of the mind.  Because comprehending presupposes precisely an energy of the mind.

A second principle introduced by the Cappadocians and first underlined by Saint Basil the Great, is that the essence (the “what is”) - does not exist without the “how is” or the “as is” (the hypostasis).  An essence without hypostasis does not exist; it cannot be understood, as Basil the Great says. Bare essence cannot exist. This is very important, because in ontology, the “as is” has a primary position, along with the “what is” (the essence).

Hellenic philosophy always bestowed primacy to the “what is” (the essence).  The Cappadocian Fathers used this –one could call it Aristotelian- concept, because Aristotle was actually more useful to the Fathers than Plato. By using the Aristotelian concept, they provided the distinction between the ‘first essence’ and the ‘second essence’.

By ‘first essence’, Aristotle denoted the specialized, the specific, while ‘second’ denoted the more general.  For example, ‘first essence’ denotes George, Kostas, John – the specific persons.  The ‘second essence’ denotes the general : i.e. mankind, human nature, the essence of humanity which exists both in Kostas and George and John.

However, divine essence cannot come before the hypostases (persons), because bare essence cannot exist.

It is likewise impossible to speak of a general humankind with regard to the human essence – i.e. with people – without also implying individual, specific people.  The same applies with God; one cannot speak of God’s essence, without simultaneously implying the “how He is”, or the Persons or the Hypostases of God.  Thus, the divine essence cannot logically precede its hypostases; simply because the essence cannot exist bare, without any hypostasis.

Third principle: While the essence and the hypostasis (the “what” and the “how”) cannot be separated, cannot be parted from each other, or the one understood without the other, consequently, neither the hypostases can exist without essence, nor the essence without a hypostasis, in the case of God. Nevertheless, there is something that provides a kind of hierarchy.  This hierarchy is derived from the concept of causality. While there cannot be an essence without a hypostasis, or a hypostasis without an essence, nevertheless, the existence of both the essence and the hypostases – in they way that they are, together, is not automatic. There is a cause involved.

The concept of cause, of causality in the existence of God is – I insist – one of the most important areas of Dogmatics and one of the most unrecognized; it was introduced by the Cappadocian Fathers, and it was introduced for the following reasons:

First of all, it was a counter-position to the Neo-Platonics, who believed that the procession from one to another (all this system of effluences of Plautinus) was a necessity and a natural evolvement of the one. A downwards evolvement naturally.  To them, the fact that the one being becomes multiple (and is thus considered evil, because by becoming multiple other things, the being is degraded) occurred as a kind of necessity, without the volition of the one.

On the other hand, the Cappadocian Fathers had to confront the Eunomians, who had created a principle, a philosophical Theological principle, on which they based their extreme Arianism, according to which “the Son is a creation”.  What was that principle? It was that the essence of God and the Father are one and the same. That the Father and the Essence are the same thing. Given that the Father is – per the general acceptance of the Orthodox – the only One Who is Unborn, then everything that falls outside of the area of the Father (as for example the Son, Who is Born and not Unborn) automatically falls outside of the area of the essence, because the essence of God is exhausted within the Father; because it relates only to Him.  It was therefore necessary to make this distinction between the essence (the “what He is”) on the one hand and the “how He is” of the Father on the other hand, in this instance. “The Father is one thing, and the essence is another.”

The question is posed, if the Son is born of the essence of the Father, or of the Father.  Naturally, the Father cannot exist without an essence.  And the 1st Ecumenical Council – on the basis of the Theology of Saint Athanasius – stresses that the Son is born of the essence of the Father.  If that is the case, then the essence – as stated by Saint Athanasius – is fruit-bearing; it produces life.  If we rest here, we must then say that the cause of this fruitfulness is observed in the life, in the existence of God.  This cause – which explains this fruitfulness – is that very same essence. Since the essence is fruit-bearing, it therefore gives birth, just like any other fruit-bearing nature gives birth.

When the Cappadocian Fathers introduced the concept of causality, of the cause, they did this in order to simultaneously defeat the idea that the cause of this fertility can be something else other than the Father. The Father is the cause. When they say that the Father is the cause, they are clearly contradistinguishing between the Father and the essence. If they were not contradistinguishing between the two, they would be falling into the same trap as the Eunomians.  The Father cannot be identified with the essence. Thus, when they say that the only cause is the Father (and as we know, the eventual theological heresy related to the “Filioque” was based on this), then we are not ruling out that we have (in the case of the Filioque) the Son as the cause; we are also rebutting the essence as the cause.  The cause is the Father.

Consequently, this fertile essence –the divine essence- does not automatically and naturally produce the Triadic Life as a natural consequence.  It produces it via the Father – via a person – thus, it is in this context of causality, that we place the Father as the principal Person as compared to the other two Persons (whose hypostases are within the Father and are drawn from the Father).  They do not have them by nature; nature itself is also hypostatized through the Father, and it is for this reason that all of Triadic life takes place in a state of freedom. It is not a result of a natural need.

Athanasios the Great, who was the first to introduce the idea “of the essence of the Father” and also introduced the image of a fertile essence, was also the one who said the following, very important things.  When pressured by the Arians into this dilemma: “So, you say that the Son is of God’s Essence and not of God’s will? Then the Son must therefore be the Son out of necessity”, he responded: “Of course He is not the Son by necessity. Even though He is not of the will, He is also not the Son by necessity. And why is He not by necessity? Because it is eternally willed by the Father and is forever the will of the Father.”  And the important thing is that not only is the Son willed by the Father, but, as Athanasios says in his third homily against Arians: «the Father also wills His own hypostasis». If we keep in mind that –according to Athanasios- the hypostasis continues to signify the essence (rather, it is the same thing), we have a double meaning simultaneously: that the existence of God’s essence, but also the essence of the Father Himself from which springs the Son, even that is willed by the Father, and that is why it exists.  The existence of the essence is not compulsory. «the Father also wills His own hypostasis». I shall read the entire related passage, because it is of great significance.

66. Αρ’ ούν επεί φύσει και μη εκ βουλήσεως εστιν ο Υιός,ήδη και αθέλητός εστι τω Πατρί, και μη βουλομένου του Πατρός εστιν ο Υιός; Ουμενούν, αλλά και θελόμενος εστιν ο Υιός παρά του Πατρός, και, ως αυτός φησιν. «Ο Πατήρ φιλεί τον Υιόν, και πάντα δείκνυσιν αυτώ».  Ως γαρ το είναι αγαθός ουκ εκ βουλήσεως μεν ήρξατο, ου μην αβουλήτως και αθελήτως εστίν αγαθός’ ό γαρ εστι, τούτο και θελητόν εστιν αυτώ. Ούτω και το είναι τον Υιόν, ει και μη εκ βουλήσεως ήρξατο, αλλ’ ουκ αθέλητον, ουδέ παρά γνώμην εστίν αυτώ.

Ώσπερ γαρ της ιδίας υποστάσεως εστι θελητής, ούτω και ο Υιός, ίδιος ων αυτού της ουσίας, ουκ αθέλητός εστιν αυτώ. Θελέσθω και φιλεέσθω τοίνυν ο Υιός παρά του Πατρός και ούτω το θέλειν και το μη αβούλητον του Θεού τις ευσεβώς λογιζέσθω. Και γαρ ο Υιός τη θελήσει ή θέλεται παρά του Πατρός, ταύτη και αυτός αγαπά, και θέλει, και τιμά τον Πατέρα. και έν εστι θέλημα το εκ Πατρός εν Υιώ, ως και εκ τούτου θεωρείσθαι τον Υιόν εν τω Πατρί, και τον Πατέρα εν τω Υιώ. Μη μέντοι κατά Ουαλεντίνον προηγουμένην τις βούλησιν επεισαγέτω. μηδέ μέσον τις εαυτόν ωθείτω του μόνου Πατρός προς τον μόνον Λόγον, προφάσει του βουλεύεσθαι. Μαίνοιτο γαρ αν τις μεταξύ τιθείς Πατρός και Υιού βούλησιν και σκέψιν. Και γαρ έτερόν εστι λέγειν, Βουλήσει γέγονεν, έτερον δε ότι Ίδιον φύσει τον Υιόν αυτού αγαπά και θέλει αυτόν. Το μεν γαρ λέγειν, Εκ βουλήσεως γέγονε, πρώτον μεν το μη είναί ποτε τούτον σημαίνει. έπτεια δε, και την επ’ άμφω ροπήν έχει, καθάπερ είρηται. ώστε δύνασθαι τινα νοείν, ότι ηδύνατο και μη βούλεσθαι τον Υιόν.

Επί Υιού δε λέγειν, Ηδύνατο και μη είναι, δυσσεβές εστι και φθάνον εις την του Πατρός ουσίαν το τόλμημα. ει γε το ίδιον αυτής ηδύνατο μη είναι. Όμοιον γαρ ως ει ελέγετο, Ηδύνατο και μη είναι αγαθός ο Πατήρ. Αλλ’ ώσπερ αγαθός αεί και τη φύσει, ούτως αεί γεννητικός τη φύσει ο Πατήρ. το δε λέγειν, Ο Πατήρ θέλει τον Υιόν, και, Ο Λόγος θέλει τον Πατέρα, ου βούλησιν προηγουμένην δείκνυσιν, αλλά φύσεως γνησιότητα, και ουσίας ιδιότητα και ομοίωσιν γνωρίζει. Ως γαρ και επί του απαυγάσματος αν τις είποι και του φωτός, ότι το απαύγασμα ουκ έχει μεν βούλησιν προηγουμένην εν τω φωτί. έστι δε φύσει αυτού γέννημα θελόμενον παρά του φωτός, τού και γεννήσαντος αυτό, ουκ εν σκέψει βουλήσεως, αλλά φύσει και αληθεία. ούτω και επί του Πατρός και του Υιού ορθώς αν τις είποι, ότι ο Πατήρ αγαπά και θέλει τον Υιό, και ο Υιός αγαπά και θέλει τον Πατέρα.


Rendition of the above text:

66. So, because He is the Son by nature and not by choice, is He then also unwanted by the Father? And, is the Son also not willed by the Father?  Indeed no; the Son is indeed desired by the Father, and, as it is said: «The Father loves the Son, and everything points to this».  For, just as His benevolence –albeit not a product of His will- was neither against His will nor unwanted by Him implies that it was desirable to Him; thus it is with the Son, Who, albeit did not originate from God’s will, nevertheless, He was not unwanted, nor was He against the opinion of the Father.


For, just as the Father willed His own hypostasis, likewise the hypostasis of the Son - who is of the selfsame essence as the Father – is not unwilled by the Son.  The Son is therefore wanted and loved by the Father, and it is thus, that one should consider God’s voluntary and not unwilled status.  For the Son is also willingly wanted by the Father, and He likewise loves, wants and honors the Father, and the will of the Father in the Son is one and the same, so that, it is in this, that we consider the Son as being “in the Father”, and the Father as being “in the Son”.  One should not introduce the Valentinian view of a precedent will, nor should anyone be persuaded that the only means that the Father has towards the Son, is on the pretext of His will.


For they would be insane, to interpose any wanting and thinking between the Father and the Son.  For it is another thing to say that “it occurred by His volition” and another thing that “it is of God’s selfsame nature to love His Son and to want Him”.  Because, when saying that “it occurred by His volition”, first of all, it could imply that the Son may not have existed before this volition; furthermore, it could imply the existence of a reciprocal tendency, inasmuch as one could anticipate the potential of (the Father) not wanting the Son.


When saying about the Son “It is also possible that He may not have always existed”, it would be disrespectful and would also be reaching the point of daring to touch on the essence of the Father, inasmuch as that selfsame essence could ever possibly have not existed at some time.  For it would be the same as saying “the Father is not benevolent”. Thus, just as the Father is perpetually benevolent by nature, likewise is He perpetually birth-giving by nature; When saying that “the Father wants the Son” and “the Son wants the Father”, it does not indicate the one’s preceding will to want the other; it is in fact a veridicality of His nature and a feature of His essence, and a acknowledgement of the likeness. Just as when one similarly speaks of the brilliance of light (inasmuch as the brilliance does not have any precedent will, inside the light), that by nature it is a birth, willed by the light which gave birth to it, and not through any thought of volition, but only by nature and veracity, likewise, when speaking of the Father and the Son, it is correct for one to say that the Father loves and wants the Son, and the Son loves and wants the Father.


That the Son of God is of the essence of the Father does not mean that He is the Son by necessity. Based on this principle that already existed since Athanasios the Great, the Cappadocians proceeded to make the following, delicate distinctions:  The distinction of causality, i.e., that the cause of the Son is the Father, since the Father Himself willed His own hypostasis, therefore He must have equally willed the Son’s hypostasis.

We are heading towards the limits of ontology; we cannot go any deeper.   We are asking if God exists because He wants to exist, or because He cannot but exist. When we say that “He willed His own hypostasis”, we are saying that He exists because He wants to exist, and not because He cannot do otherwise but exist. It was on the basis of this principle of Athanasios that the Cappadocians named the Father the “cause”:  It is His “fault” that God exists; He is the cause. However, the “Father” is not the essence; the name “Father” does not denote essence; it is not the name of the essence. It is the name of a person.  Therefore, the cause of being lies in the freedom of the person,  and in God, and is in no way automatic and compulsory.

That the Cappadocians are concerned with stressing precisely this – the freedom of the Father and the freedom of God – is apparent in the words of Saint Gregory the Theologian in his third theological homily.  In this Neo-Platonic passage he attacks both the Eunomians as well as the Greek, Neo-Platonic philosophers.  He is most probably addressing the Neo-Platonics, although the concept of a crater (drinking vessel) and the overflowing of benevolence, inasmuch as God is benevolent and resembles a crater that overflows with goodness, is a concept that also existed during Plato; however, here specifically, it is with reference to the first and the second cause. The reference is therefore to Plautinus, who believed that the first and the second cause, i.e., the “one” that becomes many, is an unwilled, natural result.  This is where Gregory responded:  “This, to us, is unacceptable.  Why is it unacceptable?  Because we would thus be introducing an involuntary birth?”

To us, says Gregory, the birth of the Son cannot be involuntary.  If it takes place involuntarily, then we are introducing this Platonic concept of first and second cause; of the natural overflowing, of a fertile nature, which consequently gives birth. This is a naturalistic, physiocratic perception. It contains the element of necessity.  The only reason that Gregory is annoyed by this Platonic idea, is none other than because it contained the element of involuntariness (“we would thus be introducing an involuntary birth”). He is obviously trying to stress the voluntary status of the birth of the Son, otherwise, we would eventually end up saying that the entire Holy Trinity exists out of necessity, as a natural consequence of the essence. 

The 2nd Ecumenical Synod brought about an alteration to the Creed of the 1st Ecumenical Synod, and also brought about a few other minor changes. Whether it contributed, is one of the darkest and most talked about problems.  Does the Creed as we know it today belong to the 2nd Ecumenical Synod or not?  Regardless, the 2nd Ecumenical Synod is historically linked to the Creed that we use today, which says that “the Son is born of the Father”.  At this point, the Nicene Creed, which is the basis of the Creed of Constantinople, had said: “…born of the Father. That is, of the essence of the Father…”  What happened to the words “That is, of the essence of the Father”?  Why were they removedWhy did all these problems arise between the years 325 and 381 A.D., which would have made evident the serious possibility that the birth of the Son would be perceived as compulsory, if we said “of the essence”?  It would not have meant that the 2nd Ecumenical Synod refuted the 1st.  It simply meant that it was being correctly interpreted; that it had to be thus interpreted, and not in any other way, because the Arians and the Eunomians were presenting interpretations containing involuntariness in the birth of the Son.  In order therefore to avoid this compulsoriness, it made allowances for this change. One could say many more things, to show that for the Fathers, the basic principle was that while essence cannot be without a hypostasis, the cause of a being is the Person of the Father, the hypostasis of the Father. And the purpose of this statement is to oust the idea of compulsoriness in the existence of God.  It introduces the concept of FREEDOM within the existence of the Holy Trinity.


Greek text

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Transcript : T.B.

Translation by A. N.

Article published in English on: 7-2-2006.

Last update: 7-2-2006.