Vladimir Lossky and the Divine Energies: Eric L. Mascall’s Take Away

In one of his most theologically illuminating books, Via Media: An Essay in Theological Synthesis, Eric Mascall once again gives a summarized treatment of Thomism versus Palamism. Early in the book he made it clear that Aquinas has the aim of believing in a real deification of the creature as God Himself is a certain kind of cause to the act of deifying. He cites the Summa Theologiae:

Now the gift of grace surpasses every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of a partaking of the Divine Nature, which exceeds every other nature. And thus it is impossible that any creature should cause grace. For it is as necessary that God alone should deify, bestowing a partaking of the Divine Nature by a participated likeness, as it is impossible that anything save fire should enkindle.” (Prima Secundæ, II, 112.1)

What then differentiates Thomism and Palamism? He summarizes:

“The difference between the Eastern and the Western outlook begins very far back in connection with the doctrine of creation and indeed of God himself. I have discussed it fairly thoroughly in my book Existence and Analogy, and I shall give only a brief summary here. For Western theology, God is fundamentally knowable; he knows himself perfectly, and his very understanding is his essence. Theologians such as Nicholas of Cusa, with his God who is a fundamentally incomprehensible coincidentia oppositorum, have been something of an oddity in the West. In Eastern Christendom, however, where the writings of the pseudo-Areopogite have received rather less reinterpretation than in the West, the notion of God as, in his essence, incomprehensible has taken very deep root. This tendency, insists M. Vladimir Lossky, in his important study La théologie mystique de l’Église d’Orient, is not to be written off as neo-Platonism:

The God of Dionysius, unknowable by nature, the God of the Psalms “who makes the shadows his hiding-place”, is not the primordial unity which is the God of the neo-Platonists. If he is unknowable, it is not in virtue of a simplicity which would be unable to accomodate itself to the multiplicity infecting all our knowledge relative to beings; it is, so to speak, a more fundamental, an absolute unknowability. In fact, if it had for its basis the simplicity of the One, as in Ploitnus, God would not be unknowable by nature. but in Dionysius it is precisely unknowability that is the only proper definition of God, if indeed we can speak of this connection of proper definitions at all‘ [p. 29]

“God is, then, in his essence entirely unknowable and incommunicable. Yet we know that he manifests and communicates himself in creation, and if we are Christians we believe that he reveals and communicates himself in an even higher way. To account for this, recourse is had to a discrimination which is made in the Areopagitica between the ‘unions’ (henoseis) and the ‘distinctions’ (diakriseis) in God. The unions are altogether interior to the superessential nature of God and cannot be externally manifested, while the distinctions are ‘processions’ (prodoi), ‘manifestations’ (ekphanseis) or ‘powers’ (dynameis), in which everything that exists participates, making God known through creatures. This doctrine received its definitive statement from the fourteenth-century Archbishop of Thessalanica, St. Gregory Palamas, by whom an explicit contrast was made between the ‘essence’ (ousia) of God and his ‘energies’ (energeiai).

“Two cautions are given. First, ‘an energy is not a divine function in relation to creatures, although God creates and operates by his energies, which penetrate everything that exists. Creatures might not exist, but God would still manifest himself outside his essence, as the sun shines in its beams beyond the solar disc, whether or not there are beings capable of receiving its light.‘ Secondly, ‘the created world does not become infinite and coeternal with God from the fact that the natural processions or the divine energies are such. The energies imply no necessity of creation, which is a free act, effectuated by the divine energy but determined by a decision of the common divine will of the three Persons.’ [ibid, p. 72]

The full bearing of this doctrine is seen when we consider not God’s action in creation but his operations in the order of grace, in our elevation into the life of God himself I shall quote M. Lossky at length:

In what respect can we enter into union with the Holy Trinity? If we could at a given moment find ourselves united with the very essence of God, and share it in any degree whatever, we should not be at that moment what we now are, we should be God by nature. God would not then be Trinity but myrihypostatos, a God with thousands of hypostases, for he would have as many hypostases as persons sharing in his essence. So, then, God remains inaccessible to us as regards his essence. Can we say, then, that we enter into union with one of the three divine Persons? But this would be the hypostasic union which is proper uniquely to the Son, to the God who becomes man without ceasing to be the Second Person of the Trinity. While we share the same human nature, while we receive in Christ the name of sons of God, we do not become, by the fact of the Incarnation, the divine hypostasis of the Son. We can, then, share neither in the essence nor in the Persons of the Trinity. Nevertheless, the divine promise cannot be an illusion: we are called to share in the divine nature. We must admit an ineffable distinction in God which is other than that of the essence and the Persons, a distinction as a result of which god will be at the same time accessible and totally inaccessible in different respects. This is the distinction between God’s essence or nature in the strict sense, which is inaccessible, unknowable, and incommunicable, and his divine energies or operations, natural forces inseparable from the essence in which God proceeds outwards and manifests, communicates, and gives himself. “The divine and deifying illumination and grace is not the essence but the energy of God”, a “common force and operation of the Trinity”. Thus, as St. Gregory Palamas says, “in saying that the divine nature is to participate not in itself but in its energies, we remain within the limits of piety“‘ [ibid., p. 67]

“It is clear that the promise with which the Athonite father is grappling is the same as that which exercise the Western scholastics: how can we give a rational account of the fact that a human being, while remaining a creature, can nevertheless really share in the life of God; and they are equally insistent that there can be neither, on the one hand, degradation of God nor, on the other, destruction of the creature’s creaturehood. The metaphysical and theological systems which are pressed into service are, however, strikingly different. The Palamite doctrine, for example, ignores altogether the sharp distinction between the order of nature and supernature which has become classically in the West. For Western theology, in the words of Mersch which have been already quoted, “the infinite Being has two ways of giving Himself to finite beings; by the former, he gives Himself to them in their way and makes them themselves; by the latter, he gives Himself to them in His way, which makes them one with Him“. But in the Palamite theory, God gives himself in only one way, whether in nature or in grace (indeed the Palamite would not admit this distinction at all); he gives himself in his energies. For the Thomist grace means a communication of the Creator to the creature in the created mode under which alone a creature can receive anything; for the Palamite it means a communication of the uncreated energy of God though not of his incommunicable essence. I have summarized the kind of theological repartee which this situation can produce in the following conversation which is based upon an actual discussion (see that here)… I am bound to say that, as a doctrine of the relation between God and his creatures, the Palamite doctrine seems to me to be profoundly unsatisfactory. The notion that God is in his essence fundamentally unintelligible seems to me to be false, and the distinction between the essence and the energies of God is one of which I find it almost impossible to make sense. But it does not seem to me to be in the least heretical, and it preserves the essential Christian attitudes to God and the world. It sees the created order as a dependent reality, in the sense in which that notion was expounded in the first chapter of this book, and it provides for a genuine deification of man while at the same time preserving man’s creaturely status. While refusing to make the distinction between nature and supernature in the traditional Western way, it maintains that fundamental openness of the creature to unlimited influxes of divine generosity which is the primary concern of the distinction between nature and supernature to provide. We need not, therefore, be surprised to find an Eastern Orthodox writer saying:

‘In cannot be too often repeated: there is no chasm between Eastern and Western Christianity. The fundamental principles of Christian spirituality are the same in the east and in the West; the methods are very often alike; the differences do not bear on the main points. On the whole, there is one Christian spirituality with, here and there, some variations of stress and emphasis’ [Orthodox Spirituality, by a Monk of the Eastern Church, p. viii.]

“Neither the Thomist nor the Palamite theory has exhausted the mystery with which it is preoccupied, nor should we expect it to do so. The communication of the Creator to the creature or, to state the matter from the other end, the elevation of the creature into the life of the Creator is a mystery so profound, so wonderful, and so far beyond anything which we could have suspected that we need not be surprrised if our various attempts to describe it run into apparent conflict with one another.” (Via Media, pages 158-165)


14 thoughts on “Vladimir Lossky and the Divine Energies: Eric L. Mascall’s Take Away

  1. If you say “The notion that God is in his essence fundamentally unintelligible seems to me to be false”, are you not flying in the face of the anaphatic emphasis in some much of the public prayer and interior life of the Church’s patrimony, both East and West?

    Look at some prayers from the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, for example. They teach us much about what God does for us and how we are to address and beseech Him, what I in my ignorance would associate with His energies, such as “Master and Lord our God, You have established in heaven the orders and hosts of angels and archangels to minister to Your glory. Grant that the holy angels may enter with us that together we may serve and glorify Your goodness. For to You belong all glory, honor, and worship to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.”

    But the prayers are also full on via-negativa regarding what we can know about Him in His Essence. “Master of all things, Lord of heaven and earth, and of every creature visible and invisible, You are seated upon the throne of glory and behold the depths. You are without beginning, invisible, incomprehensible, beyond words, unchangeable.”

    If St. Basil says that’s what he knows about God’s essence, what are the chances you or I would know more?

  2. Greetings, Erick!

    I typically remain silent on your posts. Let me start off by thanking you for your articles, and the help they have provided me in shaping and strengthening my Catholic faith. I truly appreciate your work, and the depth with which you analyze topics.

    Thus, understanding that you are likely a busy man, I apologize for having my first post on your blog be a request unrelated to your article. I sincerely hope that this does not hinder any work of greater importance you may have to deal with.

    I am quite familiar with the Orthodox claim that the Formula of Hormisdas was not actually signed by several Eastern Patriarchs, and this is not truly troublesome to me. Anyhow, the following article by Orthodox Apologist Crag Truglia not only makes this claim, but aims to prove it by showing a different watered-down Greek translation: https://orthodoxchristiantheology.com/2020/02/04/the-formula-of-hormisdas-sham/

    I was wondering if you could perhaps suggest a few sources to lead me in the right direction to further understand the source of this alleged translation, or if you find it necessary, perhaps formulate a rebuttal in one of your articles, as though I have seen you address in past articles the allegation that the Eastern Patriarchs signed the Formula of Hormisdas we know, I do not think you have addressed the issue of variant translations.

    Thanks in advance, in case you find the time to provide something related to this, and for your thorough research in Catholic apologetics.

    God bless you!

    • Hi Cobe,

      Thank you for your kind words. Regarding the Formula of Hormisdas – I devote a lengthy section to the topic in my book which is being published in the near future. I cover much of the controversial aspects about it. I can tell you this much – I don’t know any scholarly historian or theologian who is deep in the literature on this that takes the arguments of Craig very seriously. Perhaps a single glance from the “big picture” or from the “bird’s eye view” might help for this moment. Imagine it were the case that some Easterners watered down the original Formula of Hormisdas because they were seeking to avoid agreeing to the doctrine of the Papacy. Let’s just say that is what happened. Well, that would imply a couple things which might prove to be unsettling for the Orthodox.

      It would mean that the Easterners in the 6th century noticed a Papal doctrine that was intolerable for them to hold. And yet, they were willing to enter into communion with the Roman Church who did hold to those interolerable views. No one from the East demanded that Rome change its own interpretation of the libellus hormisdae, and so presumably this would mean they were okay entering into saving fellowship with Papists, so long as their side could water it down. If this is true, and if the contemporary Eastern Orthodox wish to identify their spiritual patrimony with these specific Easterners who watered their libelli down, then presumably the contemporary Eastern Orthodox should not mind mimicking their ancestors in entering into communion with Papists today?

      • That’s what’s happening isn’t it? That’s why there’s division in Orthodoxy on ecumenical issues now.

      • Thanks for your reply, Erick!

        You made a good point, I did not think of that. I suppose that it would be quite problematic for the Orthodox to suggest that they compromised on a topic they deem so important today.

        I look forward to whenever your book will be published, and I appreciate the fact you took time out of your day to respond to my unrelated comment.

        God bless you!

      • No problem Cobe,

        I am sure that there are some explanations that the Orthodox could give in their defense, but I haven’t seen any strong ones. This whole matter is seen much more vividly from the perspective of the Coptic and Syriac Miaphysites. If you can just picture yourself in their shoes. They thought Chalcedon (451) was a robber synod, and they believed anyone who held to St. Leo’s Tome and/or who condemned Dioscorus (who they consider a Saint) are heretics and schismatics.

        When the Eastern clergy signed the Formula of Hormisdas, and both subscribed to Chalcedon, the Tome, and Papal supremacy, all of those three “stained” the Eastern episcopate that re-joined with Rome. As such, the Eastern episcopate that rejoined Rome collapsed into heresy on 3 important points. The contemporary Chalcedonian Orthodox episcopate traces its lineage back to this moment of rejoining Rome via the Formula. So if the Papacy was really a heresy as they calim, they hierarchical ancestry contains the poison of subscribing to it (at least outwardly).

        Now, some Orthodox re-define what the Formula really means and some appeal to this idea of a different translation. I deal with this in the book, and I hope it is out sooner than later.

      • Internet Security,

        Well, the Ecumenical Patriarch is on the record saying that there are no dogmatic differences with the Apostolic See, but I’m not sure that carries any weight with World Orthodoxy.

  3. Somewhat related to the discussion on this comment thread between Erick and Cobe, see these two articles from 2016 and especially the exchanges on their comment threads between Chalcedonian Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox, in which some of the latter accuse 5th-Century Chalcedonians of being “papalists:”



  4. Eric,
    I have a modest wordpress site on which I mainly post about things Palamite. You may be interested in some of my resources. It is accessible here: https://lowellclucas.wordpress.com/blog/

    I am particularly interested in the work of the late Lowell Clucas whose massive dissertation on the 14th century controversy has never been published (I purchased a copy from the Proquest website (https://dissexpress.proquest.com/dxweb/results.html?QryTxt=Palamism&By=&Title=&pubnum=) but is one of the finest and most comprehensive treatments of the subject from an historical and doctrinal perspective. His concluding chapter (10) is an attempt to place the controversy in intellectual history as a sort of final triumph of Platonism in eastern theology.

    Since you brought up Lossky in this post, you might be interested in reading Rowan Williams’ 1975 dissertation on his thought. He devotes an entire chapter (ch. 6) to Lossky’s Palamism. This dissertation is actually free for downloading from the Oxford site: https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:15b86a5d-21f4-44a3-95bb-b8543d326658

    Anyhow, I enjoy your work.

  5. Working from within the Catholic tradition, Karl Rahner stressed over and over the “abiding incomprehensibility” of God. In pretty much every article he wrote but in this context perhaps of interest would be his article “Thomas Aquinas on the Incomprehensibility of God.” However for Rahner, knowledge as clarity, perception, and sight grows in proportion to knowledge of God’s incomprehensibility. The closer we approach to God, the closer we are to mystery and “know” Him as the Holy Mystery. As Adrienne von Speyr wrote, “The more mysterious God is to you, the closer He is to you.” See Rahner Theo Investigations IV “Concept of Mystery in Catholic Theology.”

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