It is not always appreciated that there are important differences between Eastern (Orthodox) and Western theologies (considered as a whole) on the question of how God acts in the world, in addition to their differing perspectives on the Trinity. As I am working on a paper that compares these two approaches, the following imaginary dialogue might be helpful to distill some of the differences.
Western theologian (W): We have learned from Augustine and Aquinas to refer to God’s action in the world as the production of certain ‘created effects.’
Eastern theologian (E): Respectfully, that seems to introduce a buffer between God and the world. If all we have are created effects, then how do we have communion with God himself?
W: Well, we talk of ‘created effects’ to preserve divine transcendence. Surely you would appreciate that.
E: Indeed we do. For us transcendence is also important; so is divine incomprehensibility. But this is only one side of the coin. The other side is the reality of deification. If divine actions are mere created effects, how is humanity and creation in general deified?
W: So what is your solution, then?
E: Our tradition makes a ‘real distinction’ between God’s essence, his persons and his energies. His essence and persons are un-participable and incommunicable, but his uncreated energies are communicable and participable.
W. I see, so you want both to affirm that God is transcendent, and to insist that he is truly present through his activity in creation.
E: Exactly. You see, the uncreated energies are like the rays of the sun. They are truly emanations of the sun himself; they are around the sun, and natural to the sun, but not the sun itself. You can participate in the energies much like you can sunbathe. The transcendence of God is safeguarded in that you are not participating in the essence of God…
W: Sure, that would make you God!
E: Yup; and we don’t want that. But at the same time, we are required to speak of participating in the divine nature. We do that precisely through the energies. If the name sounds strange, you might as well call them works, or operations.
W: Sounds interesting. But there is a problem in your solution. I get the motivation for it, but it seems to introduce a distinction within God himself, between his essence and persons on the one hand, and his energies on the other. That seems to imply that God is composed and no longer a simple being. I thought you also affirmed divine simplicity.
E: But we do! Only for us simplicity means something slightly different. You understand God as pure act. We think that is a problem. We prefer to think of God transcending his own actions, rather than being identical with them.
W: What’s wrong with our conception of simplicity?
E: Well, for one, it seems to imply that creation is both necessary and eternal. Also, and everyone knows that, it has a hard time conceiving of a personal relation between God and the world.
E: Yeah, I mean, if God is pure act, how can God relate and respond to the world?
W: Do you mean that God changes?
E: Aha! He doesn’t! But his operations change! He is above his energies, or operations, he remains transcendent.
W: OK, but now you seem to be distinguishing his immanence so strongly from his economic presence that I have a hard time understanding in what sense the energies are still divine and uncreated.
E: Well, the energies deify, but that doesn’t mean that they lead to an understanding of God in positive terms. I know the West likes the kataphatic (positive), but we cannot accept that reduction of God to his activity.
W: Why not?
E: Because any person is more than just the sum of his actions. A person must act. Unless she acts, she does not exist concretely. Yet she always will transcend these actions…
W: So let me get this straight: God transcends his actions.
E: Yes, he even transcends his attributes. Some would say he is super-essential. He transcends his own essence. This is what we mean by divine simplicity.
W: This is starting to make sense now. For us simplicity is identity between being and existence; between being and attributes. For you, simplicity is the priority of God over being, and indeed over existence itself.
E: Yes, for us God is fundamentally personal, not Aquinas’ ipsum esse. He is beyond being itself.
W: Much good does that do you, since in his energies the persons are virtually indistinguishable.
E: How do you mean?
W: Well, since the energies are common to all of the persons, yet distinct from one another, they are not much use in revealing to us the distinct persons.
E: There is a good reason for that. It is precisely because we see them sharing the same energies or works that we know the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to be equally divine.
W: I think we agree on this issue. We call this the doctrine of inseparable operations. There is a guy, Vidu or something, who is writing a book on this.
E: Never heard of him…
W: Anyway, I was saying that your conception of divine agency seems to obscure the distinctiveness of the persons. Some have suggested Western theology has the same problem.
E: Yes, quite a number of your theologians have contrary opinions. This does not happen in Orthodoxy.
W: [scoffs] Seriously? And how about Zizioulas or Bulgakov? Not entirely uncontroversial are they?
E: That’s a sensitive one. Can we get back to the topic? How do you think your model of divine agency, despite our shared doctrine of inseparable operations, is better suited to the revelation of the distinct triune persons?
W: They key lies precisely in the notion of ‘created effect’. Augustine understood this very early on: the created effects are inseparably produced by the three persons, yet they are especially revealing of just one of them. Some call this ‘appropriation’.
E: So how does this work specifically? Can you supply an example or two?
W: Augustine was never short on these examples in fact. He writes, for instance, about the baptism of Jesus. He said, the voice from heaven, the dove, and the human nature of Jesus Christ are common productions of all three divine persons, yet they especially reveal just one of them in particular.
E: But if they merely reveal the person, that is not quite the same as actually being the person! We seem back to square one: you seem to buffer personal relationships and the presence of God by these ‘created symbols.’ We are stuck with the symbols, and do not have the persons.
W: On the contrary, we already have God by virtue of his omnipresence. He does not need to ‘enter our world’, or ‘come down’, or something like those Evangelicals like to preach.
E: I want to hear more about this…
W: Well, when one thinks about God’s acting in the world, one has to realize that God is already present in the world. So to speak about ‘created effects’ is not to reduce God’s presence to these. Rather, it is to speak about an intensification of his presence. One may speak about a presence by intensity, as opposed to a presence by immensity (his omnipresence).
E: So then God’s action in the world assumes that he is already in the world.
W: Exactly: the biblical prophets and poets knew this well. John also writes about the Word who was already in the world, although the world did not know Him.
E: So then what is the role of ‘created effects’?
W: There are two kinds of created effects. A created effect may indicate one of two things. Either it is a simple divine operation, as a special divine action, for instance, or a theophany. Think burning bush. Or, it may indicate a divine mission, that is, an extension of a divine hypostasis into the world. In a simple operation, the created effect is simply produced; such an operation is common to the three, yet appropriated to just one of them. A divine mission, on the other hand, is not merely appropriated to one of the persons, but proper to them.
E: How so?
W: In a divine mission, the created effect is united to the divine person. So, the human nature of Jesus Christ is united to the person of the Son, and thus becomes the Son.
E: We would say that Christ’s human nature is assumed by the Son, and it is deified by the uncreated energies.
[To be continued…]