Publications: Articles - Theology
Visons of the Invisible (Part III)
In the last issue of the Voice of Orthodoxy we saw that within the Godhead there exists a distinction-in-unity between the essence of God and His energies. It was shown that the essence of God referred to the inexhaustible being of God as He is within Himself and for this reason would remain forever unknowable and inaccessible. On the other hand, by the energies of God, the Eastern Orthodox tradition recognized God's common action towards creation as it is revealed outside of God's transcendent essence. It must be remembered that insofar as the Orthodox Church claims that this distinction is real it affirms the human person's genuine participation in God in an immediate and personal way without discarding God's transcendence. Yet it could be said that this distinction is also methodological insofar as it is a creaturely means of expressing humanity's participation in the Godhead without, in any way, destroying God's simplicity, transcendence or without exhausting the fullness of the divine life. Ultimately, within this life, our vision and experience of God will always be like a "shadowy reflection of the sun in water"1 to use the beautiful analogy of St Gregory the Theologian (4th century). If it is impossible to gaze directly into the sun's rays since its powerful light is too strong for the eye, how much more so unbearable would it be for a human person to behold the uncreated essence or nature of God directly.
To take this analogy a little further, even though the sun cannot be directly beheld, this is not to say that it does not exist or that its warmth cannot be enjoyed. Ultimately, in theology it is quite different to know that such a distinction between the essence and energies of God exists and to enjoy this reality, than to be able to grasp this fully with the mind or with language. Furthermore, in the same way that persons are able to enjoy the intricate mechanics of nature – the instinctive intelligence of the animal kingdom, its endless variety, the beautiful artistry displayed in the flora world, the wonder of the sea and so on – without necessarily being able to explain how they work, can they also, in faith enjoy God's beatitude without grasping it fully with their reason. All this is so because ultimately God reveals Himself as Person to persons. It is to this aspect of our vision of God that we now turn especially since some may wish to conclude that the essence/energy distinction renders our vision of God impersonal, since, so they would argue, it discards the person of Christ wishing instead to speak of abstract or speculative energies. In fact, it will be shown that in speaking of the vision of God, the Orthodox tradition fully embraces the God of the Bible as He was graciously disclosed in the person of Christ, speaking in personal rather than essentialist categories.
Our Vision of God is personal
Since it is the Holy Trinity which is implied in speaking about humankind's vision of God, then it has to be said that the uncreated energies of God are personal and not merely speculative. The energies are the personal presence and appearance of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the world outside of their divine nature. The energies come from the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit making the three persons present and active in a distinctive way. For example, all three persons of the Holy Trinity show forth their love but each expresses it with another sensitivity – the Father loves, the Son loves, the Holy Spirit loves, but it is another taste of love which is expressed from the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And it is these personal divine energies which gives the created world the possibility to see the invisible God, leading to a vision of both one and three. Therefore the vision of God, as an experience of the uncreated energies of God, and not His essence, is a vision of living divine persons.
Therefore far from constituting an undifferentiated impersonal encounter, the human person's vision of God is personal in so far as the energies reveal the three persons in their communion or interpenetrating love. It must always be remembered that the Eastern Orthodox tradition has not only expressed the reality of seeing God in the distinction between God's essence and God's energies but also in a personalistic way – as a vision or personal encounter with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Accordingly, Orthodox theology would claim that whilst it is not the essence of God which can be seen, nor His uncreated energies as such (they are experienced), it is rather that God is seen as person or more correctly, as persons. Therefore personhood forms the basis of any possibility of beholding the grandeur and beauty of God. Therefore the energies of God are not experienced immediately from the essence but through the persons of the Holy Trinity. Since the Father willed, out of His love to create, continually provide for and ultimately save the world, by sending His only begotten Son down to earth to become incarnate by the power of the Holy Spirit, this means that our vision of God is a personal vision – a vision from Person to person.
Having affirmed the personal vision of God, the Orthodox tradition maintains that the key for appreciating the possibility of 'seeing' God is Jesus Christ. It was the Incarnation of the divine Logos of God which opened up a radically new prospect for the world's vision of God. In the incarnation of the second person of the Holy Trinity, God is now totally 'seen' by the created world in the person of the Logos. Far from being an intellectual submission to a 'transcendent' idea of a 'supreme being' or an unmoved 'first mover', God was seen in the flesh by the first 'eye-witnesses' in His manifestation in the Person of Jesus Christ. And indeed the Gospels, which are a rational testimony and clarification of the Church's vision of God bear witness to the fact that God was now personally seen in the historical presence of Christ. It is for this reason that the feast day celebrating the baptism of Christ in the Jordan River, is called theophany – that is the manifestation of Jesus Christ as Son of God. In uniting with human nature, Christ therefore opened up the way for the created world to behold the beauty and grandeur of God. And this vision is continually transmitted in the Church throughout the centuries by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it is only in Christ that we can fully speak of divine visions since the invisible God now became fully visible through His Son, the Lord Jesus.
Now, the world's vision of God in the person of Christ is also a witness and manifestation of the person of the Father. In fact St Irenaeus stated this in an explicit and concise manner:
"that which is invisible in the Son is the Father and that which is visible in the Father is the Son,"2
This quotation is simply a confirmation of the verse found in the opening chapter of the Gospel according to St John which states that it is Jesus Christ who makes God the Father known: "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father‟s heart, who has made him [the Father] known" (Jn 1:18). For this reason the basis to understanding what is meant by 'vision' of God is Jesus Christ. This is also made particularly clear in St Paul's second letter to the Corinthians:
"For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." (2Cor. 4:6)
Therefore the Orthodox Church would claim that any vision of God can only take place through the person of the Son of God. Since God became human, human persons can indeed claim not only to have seen God, but also to have touched, heard and experienced Him with all their faculties in a most intimate way. And in so far as we have seen Jesus Christ we have seen the Father since this is exactly what Jesus said in response to Philip's request to Jesus to show him the Father:
"Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, „Show us the Father‟?" (Jn 14:9).
Even though it is the role of Christ to lead us to the Father, it is the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church to realise, bring about, and reveal this vision of God to the world today.
A Vision of 'how' God is and not 'what' God is
Now, having affirmed the possibility of 'seeing' God in so far as He offers His Son by the Holy Spirit to the world, it must be stated that this vision of God does not reveal 'what' God is, but 'how' God is. As to 'what' God is, this is beyond the grasp of the created world, since the 'what' of God refers to God's essence, which, as we stated in the previous part of this article, is totally unknowable, ineffable and invisible. Therefore statements as to what is seen, that is His essence are entirely impossible since God's essence is unapproachable. Yet when speaking about how God is seen, and this is as person in this regard we can speak of a vision of God using personal language in so far as God is personal. Regarding 'how' God exists and is revealed, we know from the person of Jesus Christ, that God is a communion of three persons and for this reason personhood becomes the key biblical concept in God's self-manifestation to the world. A God who does not exist in concrete persons can neither be known nor exist or seen since it is persons who give existence [ie hypostasize] essence.3 On this, St Gregory Palamas wrote:
"And God speaking to Moses, did not say 'I am the essence', but 'I am who I am' (Ex 3:14); for He who is, is not from the essence, but rather the essence is from He who is; for He who is has captured in himself whatever is."4
It is persons that have a real and specific existence - persons are the mode of existence of essence. The God who is and acts in the world is seen and known personally as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Therefore the essence is not without hypostasis but is rather a trihypostatical energetic essence.5
For the Fathers of the Church, it was the person who constituted the initial possibility of 'seeing' God. It was not the essence that preceded and defined existence but the person. The Fathers proclaimed that God is in principle a person, who being absolutely free from every necessity and predetermination hypostisized [ie gave existence to] His Being giving birth eternally to the Son and sending forth the Holy Spirit.6 From all that has been said thus far it becomes obvious that if this personal dimension regarding the vision of God is denied in terms of Christ then there is a danger of theology becoming speculative and abstract and therefore not real. Therefore our theology of the vision of God presupposes a vision of God as persons through which the uncreated energies of God emanate. From all this investigation, it has become clear that in speaking of the Godhead, the Eastern Orthodox tradition, in totality speaks of the distinction in God between the one unparticipable essence, the three hypostases [persons] and the grace or energies of God without which the biblical understanding of God as both transcendent, yet immanent and personal would make no sense. And it is to this triple distinction-in-unity that we will turn our attention in the next issue of the Voice of Orthodoxy.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. St Gregory the Theologian, Oration 28:3.
2. Adv. Haer. 4,6,6.
3. Cf. C. Yannaras, Elements of Faith, 27.
4. Triads, 3,2,12.
5. Cf. S. Yangazoglou, "The Person in the Trinitarian Theology of Gregory Palamas", Philotheos, 1(2001): 141.
6. C. Yannaras, Elements of Faith, 27.