Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Trinity, God's Essence, God's Energies

Awhile back, Mark at Pseudo-Polymath graciously took up the question I put down at a previous Christian Reconciliation Carnival: for someone Eastern Orthodox to please explain their understanding of God's essence and God's energies. (See also here and here.) My understanding of the teaching is this: God, in himself and in his immutable essence, is not directly knowable; but that through his energies he interacts with the world and becomes immanent, present, and knowable. It is through God's energies that God creates, redeems, and even transfers attributes of his essence to us (e.g. makes us holy because he is holy). That could be material for several posts right there -- even assuming I'm understanding that teaching correctly -- but I wanted to mention why I'm investigating that.

The reason I asked was this: I think some of the Trinitarian issues are going to have to be revisited along the way to achieving reconciliation in the church as a whole, and I think the Eastern Orthodox understanding of God's essence and God's energies will come to play in that. Before anyone starts to be concerned on my behalf talking about revisiting the Trinity, let me assure you that I have no problem at all with the Nicene Creed, nor with any of the passages of Scripture discussing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However, some of the expositions of the Trinity that have come out since have sounded awkward, as if the categories being used (essence/ousia, person/hypostasis) were not really the cleanest fit for what was being described. The Trinity as it is currently taught may be the best job that anyone could possibly do in describing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the categories adapted from ancient Greek philosophy; but that leaves untouched the entirely separate question of whether ancient Greek philosophy (even as adapted) was properly equipped to describe God.

As for those explanations of the Trinity in categories adapted from ancient Greek philosophy, some of the explanations have sounded contrived or forced. My concern is that our current understanding the Trinity does not do justice to God: that the awkwardness of the categories in handling the content is a sign that they are not a good fit. Even the best conception of God using these categories rarely attains to the height of true theology where what is taught can be recognized as good news, life-giving news. The current teaching is excessively technical in a way which tends to rob it of even the possibility of being good news for large numbers of people who are not technically minded (besides leaving "theology" for the "experts" and fostering divisions). In practice, this leads to a popular understanding that is flat and rote. Worse than that, the popular current understanding of the Trinity is tenuous because a flat and rote understanding is propped up by the threat of excommunication. I'm not at all saying that no theologian has done better; but I do think I'm describing the actual state of matters in an uncomfortably large number of cases.

It's not only the Eastern Orthodox understandings of essence and energies that I expect to come into play as we broaden, deepen, and refine our understanding of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I expect we will also need to incorporate the ancient Jewish concepts of God's Presence/Shekhinah and God's Wisdom/Torah (in the broad sense).

Just as a sample of what I could envision -- for the average person's understanding of the Trinity as good news -- imagine if the average person were to have a concept of the Torah as God's Wisdom which gives life, the Word by which he formed the world, the Word which gives form to our lives and transfers some of God's attributes to us, which makes us holy (as God is holy) and bestows on us God's image. Then imagine if the average person were to have a concept of God's Presence in the world through his Spirit, a living and active presence full of His glory, and by which the prophets spoke God's Wisdom. I think then you'd be fairly close to understanding the Trinity in alternative terms (in this case, in Jewish terms). When God said in the plural, "Let us make man in our image", did he speak to the Torah and the Shechinah? How far is that from saying that He spoke to His Word and His Spirit?

I'm not saying that rethinking the Trinity in terms of essence and communication and energies, or even in terms of I AM and Torah and Shechinah, is quite so simple as the quick sketch above. I certainly don't mean to say that the concept of God's energies maps directly onto God's Word and God's Spirit. I am saying that if the knowledge of God is going to be what it should be, we still have a lot of ground to explore, even after all this time.

Mark, I hope you're not too appalled at why I was asking. I would be glad if the 21st century of the church goes down in history as the century of reconciliation; or even if the 24th century did and our century was later considered mere groundwork. I would also be glad if the 21st century of the church goes down in history as the century in which we reached deep into our roots -- and even into the roots of our disagreements -- for more resources to know God.

1 comment:

Seth Ward said...

I really like your blog. I enjoyed this presentation of the various views of Trinitarian concepts. I have wanted to study the contrast of Augustan trinity and the Eastern Orthodox but haven't had time.

Understanding the Trinity is so dependent upon imagination that I don't think the best of illustrations will ever capture it.

I am a fan of the Nicene Creed myself.