Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics and About God

Previous // Contents // Next


2. The transferal of the terms essence, energy and person into Theology. (The problem of freedom)

a. The prerequisites of the Patristic Synthesis


In the previous lesson we spoke of the significance of the terms essence, energy and person as perceived by the Cappadocian Fathers and we afterwards spoke of the principles they applied for the transferal of those terms into the realm of Theology.  These were the principles:

1st  With regard to the that He is of God, in other words, the simple affirmation of His existence:

     There should be no doubt, no question that He exists, and that this is imperative. 

2nd With regard to the what He is of God:

This corresponds to the essence of God, of which there is a total ignorance and incapability for one speak of it. Regardless of how close one may approach or reach God whether as an angel or as a saint there will always be something that shields the essence of God, as in the case of Isaiah who saw God on His throne, but saw Him mantled by angels. With their wings, they had somehow shrouded the essence of God the essence that cannot be seen by anyone, or be perceived, or be known with the mind.

3rd There can be no bare essence.

Saint Basil the Great had said this; in other words, there cannot be any essence without a hypostasis an essence that does not have any hypostases within it.  This means that when we speak of the one God, or, when we speak of the one essence of God, we must immediately also imply the persons His three Persons. The one does not precede the other, because quite simply, the one cannot exist without any hypostasis, and the hypostatic form of Gods essence is triadic. That is why we do not have essence without hypostasis.  At this point, we need to add the opposite observation that there cannot be a hypostasis without essence; in other words, it is not correct for one to suppose that the hypostases are precedent to the essence, as though they can be perceived on their own, without essence. Essences without hypostases do not exist, nor hypostases without essences. This is the third principle, which places all three Persons at the same level. The persons appear simultaneously (not meant in the sense of time), as the hypostases of the essence. Nevertheless, this togetherness, this simultaneousness of the one and the many in God, bears the implication that inside this simultaneousness, there is a certain gradation.

This gradation is the other principle that the Cappadocians mainly introduced.  It is the gradation of causality; in other words, this appearance of the three Persons is not without a cause. Someone, something, causes this hypostatizing of the essence.  God is not hypostases; the essence does not comprise hypostases without a cause. It is precisely this cause which differentiates the Father (one of the three Persons, of the three hypostases). It differentiates Him, with regard to the other two hypostases. The Cappadocian Fathers had to confront that precarious tract from the Gospel of Saint John, which was used exhaustively by the Arians against the orthodox. The familiar statement My Father is greater than me was used precisely in the context of the above meaning of causality.

The Father is indeed greater than the Son, not in nature, not in essence, but only from the aspect of causality, because the Father is the cause. It is in this way that we have a prioritizing of the hypostases, on the basis of causality. According to the Cappadocian Fathers, it is this meaning of causality that is absolutely related to the meaning of freedom.

When we say that the cause is the Father, we firstly mean that the birth of the Son and the sending forth of the Holy Spirit were not an effluence of the essence (which would imply that we have a precedence of the essence), nor were they compulsory, in the sense that the persons the hypostases are not antecedent to the essence, but in another, more positive sense, i.e., that they reflect freedom. And that is precisely the idea, the belief, i.e., that the hypostases the persons and consequently the very existence of God, by having the Father as the cause, and with the volition of the Father, they were neither unwanted nor unwilled by the Father, as Saint Athanasius had said.

In wanting therefore (and for one to want, one must be a person), the essence possesses the will, but the essence per se does not possess the wanter.  It possesses the wanter, only in the person of a hypostasis, and not as the essence.  The meaning of causality is linked to the freedom of Gods being to the extent that the wanting Father is not only the wanter of the Sons and the Holy Spirits existence, but He is also the wanter of His own hypostasis, and His own existence.

As Saint Athanasius said:  the Father is the wanter of His very hypostasis; and this is because it would be inconceivable, as Gregory the Theologian stressed, when responding to the question how is the Father hypostatized? as it was something that one would never even dare to consider. Because when the Arians said so, the Son is out of necessity, and not willed, Gregory had replied by saying consider the Father also: If you say that the Father exists out of necessity, then it is as though you are saying the most terrible, the most inconceivable thing, because if the Father exists without His wanting it, how can He be God, if He is compelled? And this means nothing else, except one thing that He is God ( , , . ). In other words, you may say that God is not free - just like you can say many other things but to say that He is not free to exist, is inconceivable.  This means that the freedom to be the freedom to exist is a basic thing for God.

Gods existence His way of existence is exactly His triadic hypostasis of Father-Son-Holy Spirit, and this freedom as to their existence applies to all three of His Persons, to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  What is the cause of this freedom? It is not a freedom that originates from the essence; it is the freedom of the causer the Father. The Father is the One who wants, and this can be seen in Saint Athanasius words:  for the Son also, with the wanting that the Father wants Him, by that same wanting He also loves and honors and wants the Father; and one is the will of the Father in the Son, so that thus, one can consider the Father to be within the Son and the Son within the Father ( , , ). Consequently, with the Father being the cause, He is not only the cause of the Sons birth, and the coming forth of the Holy Spirit in other words the existence of the Trinity or His own existence also but He is also the cause of voluntary (free) existence; that is, He exists voluntarily and not compulsorily.

Consequently, the issue is that the free will of the Father is whence the triadic hypostasis of God springs from; from whence the essence is hypostatized into a triadic God. From the moment that we say this (that the free will of the Father hypostatizes itself, that it hypostatizes the essence as Father, Son and Holy Spirit) we are risking the issue that the Arians had identified and immediately counter-proposed i.e., that if such is the case, the Son must have therefore been born following a volition-will.  So, how can we reconcile the refuting of Athanasius and the Cappadocians that the Son is born, not unwilled and unwanted, but by the wanting of the Father Who wanted Him ( , )?

At first glance we seem to have here a contradiction, which may create some confusion.  We need to stress that there is no contradiction, but we do need to first make a delicate distinction, which arises from the study once again of the writings of Athanasius and the Cappadocians.  When Athanasius opposed the Arian position that the Son is born pursuant to the volition of the Father, he explains the reason he has done this and he clearly defines the meaning of volition that is implied in this instance:

He therefore says:  as for saying that it (=the birth of the Son) occurred after a volition, it first of all implies that it might have never been, and furthermore, it also has an inference of uncertainty, inasmuch as one could assume that the Son could also not have been wanted.  ( , , , ).

That which bothered Athanasius, making him oppose the idea of Paternal volition, was that the meaning of volition there had the inference which he had stressed elsewhere, as that which has a proclivity towards something other, and is also indicative of something opposite, inasmuch as, with the former, one must show preference, and with the latter, one cannot show support  ( , , ).

The meaning of volition has precisely the meaning of choice. If I am for example- free to attend or not attend the lesson (although that is not absolute), if I decide to do it, then thats fine. But, by deciding, and by being free to choose to do it or not, I am implying that I could just as equally choose to not do it.  By being truly free, I am able to choose to do or not do the lesson.  Therefore the term of His volition contains that inference of something other that proclivity towards something other, which is also indicative of something opposite, so that with the former, one must show preference, and with the latter, one cannot show support.  And that is exactly what he means, if we apply the idea of volition to the birth of the Son, i.e.: we would be implying that the Son could equally not have been born. 

But we must be careful, that he does not mean it only in this way. That which bothered him and this is most revealing- is not so much that the Son could equally not have been born, but that one could assume that the Son could also not have been wanted, in other words, that the Father could possibly not have freely wanted the Son. The paradox here is the following:  Athanasius wants a volition that is free, eternal and never-ending, but it must not be a volition that requires a choice between two possibilities. Athanasius is not opposed to free volition per se; he is however against volition which implies a choice between two possibilities, because that would imply that the Son might not have been a volition of the Father; according to Athanasius, the Son is eternally wanted by the Father and he does not wish this to signify necessity. He sees volition as wanting, thus making a proper usage of words. Many of us would say that we cant use the word volition, wanting in that sense, and we thus deny free will.

But then we would be in a literal conflict with Athanasius. So, how can we understand him in the essence? How can we reconcile matters?

An eternal wanting, which does not contain the option of something opposite and contrary?  How can these two things be reconciled?  We need to delve very deeply into Patristic thinking here Because that is where the supreme mystery of freedom and existence is hidden in the way that the Fathers expounded it.

Let us examine this very delicate point carefully:  The fact that I could attend or not attend this lesson that I possess this choice is attributed to the fact that I am faced with two given situations. They are given. I do not create them; they are given. We make choices, when we have before us two possibilities. We do not create those possibilities; they are given, and that is the characteristic definition of the created.  Because the created is precisely confronted by a preexisting reality.  Because it is created, i.e. it is someone elses creation, that someone else the creator obviously precedes the creation.  The creation-created therefore is presented with the challenge - if given the freedom to either accept or to not accept that which is precedent to it, as Adam was.  Adam found himself in front of this choice-selection, i.e., whether to say yes to God, or no.  Because God had preceded Adam, and whatever is precedent whatever we find ready is a challenge to our freedom. For instance, you have this table in front of you; you are free to either kick it, or to do whatever you want with it. It is a challenge to my freedom, to take a stance opposite that table.  It is a characteristic of the creation-created, to be faced with already existing situations, amongst which it will make its choices.

Let us try to apply this meaning of freedom to God the Uncreated and in fact apply it before the existence of the world. So, how do we apply it to the eternal, never-ending existence of God?  What choices can someone make, when there is nothing else around them except their self?  The dilemma would then be :  either they will exist compulsorily and be subservient to their self, their essence, their nature, or, they will exercise freedom in only one way: affirmatively, positively, with a yes.  Because, who would they say no to ?  You say no, when you reject something near you.  But what can you reject, when there is nothing around you to reject? Do you reject yourself? This is a schizophrenic kind of situation, which again originates from the option for choice that we the created have.  When we reject our self, it is because our self is to us- a given existence.  We ourselves did not decide to be born; our freedom was not operative during our birth.  The fact that we are (previously) created is what gives us the option to commit suicide to reject our self.  So, if we remove the element of creation, we naturally cannot consider God committing suicide, or His exercising freedom in a negative way, with a no by Him. Because no signifies a rejection, and there would be nothing for Him to reject.

So, God is left with this:  Either He is compulsorily existent, or, for Him to be free, He must exercise His freedom by responding affirmatively, by saying yes to His existence, because the option to say no does not exist; because there is nothing else beyond Him.

God, within His own existence, is not alone. His very existence is an ontological yes.  Subsequently, His freedom coincides with His very existence.  The yes of His existence is the yes of His freedom, and the yes of His existence contains the yes of His triadic existence. When the Father consents to His own existence and the existence of the Son and the Holy Spirit, He is exercising freedom.  And He is exercising His freedom, as an affirmative will. This affirmative will allows no margin for a negative will - as that would be something inconceivable for the Uncreated and this is precisely what is known as the love of God.

It is not by chance that Saint Athanasius in this crucial excerpt relates the will of God to the love of God. He says: Just as He the Father- is the wanter of His own hypostasis, likewise is the Son, being of the same essence, is not unwanted by Him-the Father. Therefore the Son is wanted and loved by the Father; and thus, one must respectfully consider that which is wanted and not unwilled by God ( , , . ) .  Thus, we see that there is a way that we can have an orthodox approach to the wanting and not unwilled by God, and there is a way that we can have a wanting and not wanting by God.

It is a perception of cacodoxy, when the will of God is perceived as a decision of choosing between options. However, this is not the only interpretation of will that exists.  There is also the pious meaning of will, the orthodox concept of will.  It is the Son being wanted and loved by the Father; and thus, one must respectfully consider that which is wanted and not unwilled by God ( ).

When, therefore, (as Saint Cyril of Alexandria explains Saint Athanasius) the will of God goes along with His nature, then Gods freedom coincides with His existence, and it is not an issue of the freedom of yes or no.  It is the freedom of yes only.  It should be noted that Maximus the Confessor proposed the concept of freedom as a one-way street and not two streets, which we must choose between. This is precisely the concept of freedom that prevails in theosis. Eschatologically, we will not have the option of choice. Even with death, choices are not an option (there is no repenting in Hades), but with the Second Coming, when I choose freely to say no to killing someone (and death has been abolished in the meantime), then what is the significance of my freedom?  Eschatologically, my freedom becomes a one-way street. It becomes the yes. That is why it is characteristic in theosis. Yes is Gods way of existence, as Paul says in his Epistle II to Corinthians: Christ is not a yes and no to us, but everything is become yes in Him  ( , ). The yes does not imply compulsoriness and non-freedom.  God is the God of yes in His existence. He is an eternal yes towards the Son and the Spirit, which yes is reciprocated by the Son and the Spirit, towards the Father.

Consequently, there is a respectful way of referring to the wanting and not unwilled by the eternal God. This is the respectful way.

The Father therefore freely and out of love gives birth to the Son and sends forth the Spirit. Freely and out of love.  Because this wanting and loving by the Son, and the Sons being wanted and loved by the Father  ( , ), is precisely equivalent to the existence of the Son; to the Sons being.  Thus, by the wanting that the Son is wanted by the Father, by the same wanting He likewise wants and loves the Father; and the wanting is mutual. ( ). When a creation makes a choice, we can have a variety of wills/wants.  The freedom of a creation allows for various wills/wants, whereas here, freedom entails only one will. Gods will is only one, and that is why it is linked to His one nature, to His one essence: and one is the will, of the Father in the Son ( , ). It may be only one will, but it is not characteristic of the essence. It could be characteristic of the essence, but it does not originate from the essence. When we say of the Father, we mean that the will originates from Him; that He wills/wants to exist as God, and that is why the Father par excellence is God. In the Bible, God=Father and according to the Greek Fathers, God=Father.  Only to the Westerners is He is an essence. From Augustine onwards

Therefore the Father as the cause- is the One Who freely wills His very hypostasis the hypostasis of the Trinity, and it is with this, that we should confront the problem that arises with the Arians, when Athanasius rejects volition without rejecting wanting and not unwilled.  The contradiction therefore which at first glance this concept presents, is lifted and is solved in this manner.  The subject is very, very difficult.


Greek text

Previous // Contents // Next

Transcript: Thanasis Anastasiou

Translation by A. N.

Article published in English on: 8-2-2006.

Last update: 9-2-2006.