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Divine Energies and Orthodox Soteriology

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In his new Being with God, Aristotle Papanikolaou points to differences between Vladimir Lossky and John Zizioulas on the issue of divine energies. For Lossky, the doctrine of divine energies is designed to "protect the real character of communion with God" in theosis while also insisting that union with God does not mean union with His essence. By union with the Body of Christ, one shares in the work of Christ and receives a deified human nature. But this reception of deified nature is followed by growth toward perfect, which involves participation in the energies of God. As Papanikolaou puts it,

"Personhood is the goal; the means are the energies of God conveyed through the person of the Holy Spirit. One assimilates more fully in personal existence the energies of God already present throughout the creation." Lossky insists that theotic union cannot take place through union with the essence, but he also rejects "the use of hypostasis, which indicates exclusively distinction within God's being." Further, to understand theosis under the rubric of hypostasis would be to deny the uniqueness of the union of divine and human in Christ. Lossky writes, "Even though we share the same human nature as Christ and receive in Him the name of Sons of God, we do not ourselves become the divine hypostasis of the Son by the fact of the Incarnation. We are unable, therefore, to participate in either the essence or the hypostasis of the Holy Trinity." Another distinction is needed to explain human participation in God - the distinction of esence and energies, the later being "forces proper to and inseparable from God's essence, in which He goes forth from Himself, manifests, communicates, and gives Himself."

Zizioulas, however, with his emphasis on the personal/communal character of being, does not give the energies nearly so prominent a role in theosis. He argues that when the energies are made "the controlling theological concept" then it makes "superfluous, if not suspect, any logos of person" (this latter phrase from Zizioulas). Papanikolaou summarizes Zizioulas's point:

First, he "emphatically affirms that an energy is never apersonal. The energies of God are communicated only through the persons of the Trinity. This emphasis on the personal character of energies is indicative of the primacy of an ontology of personhood and communion in Zizioulas's thought. Second, salvation is not described for Zizioulas as an increase in participation in the divine energies, but as the transformation of being into true personhood in the person of Christ. For Zizioulas, the essence/energies distinction is 'nothing else essentially, but a device created by the Greek Fathers to safeguard the absolute transcendence of God without alienating Him from the world.' The energies are God's actions in the world and are saving events. The ultimate saving event, though not excluding the divine energies, is not simply a matter of God's action, but a relational event of communion that constitutes human personhood as true personhood in the image of Christ."

Papanikolaou suggests that in subordinating the doctrine of energies to a communion ontology, and by insisting that hypostasis is not only a description of distinction in God but the site of divine-human encounter, Zizioulas is "initiating a revolution of his own in contemporary Eastern Orthodox theology."

posted by Peter J. Leithart on Wednesday, April 19, 2006 at 11:13 AM

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