Reasons Reformed/Evangelicals Shouldn't Accept the Essence-Energies Distinction (1-3)


In a recent post here, David Nilsen of the A-Team argued that Evangelicals should accept the essence-energies distinction. The reasons he offers are related to the doctrine of God, and the need to maintain a biblical understanding of who God is and avoid philosophical extremes. My intention is not to criticize his arguments per se, because they seem alright.[i] What I am interested in asking is whether or not Reformed Protestants—including Reformed Evangelicals—can consistently hold to essence-energies without giving up some of the most important Reformed distinctives.[ii] Can someone believe in the essence-energies distinction, maintain the distinctives of Reformed theology, and not adopt the distinctives of Orthodox theology?

In the first part of this multi-part series, I will give three (of several) reasons to think that the essence-energies distinction is incompatible with some of the most important distinctives of Reformed theology: the doctrine of effectual calling and regeneration, the denial of the communication of divine attributes to Christ’s human nature, and the retributive nature of the punishments of hell.

Reason #1. Reformed and Reformed Evangelical Theologians should reject the Essence-energies distinction because it is incompatible with effectual calling.

Reformed Theology is committed to the doctrine of effectual calling and regeneration (or irresistible grace, as common folk call it). Because the unredeemed human will is devoid of grace, it is incapable of loving God or cooperating with God for salvation. God’s grace must therefore override the human will in order for a human being to be saved. God regenerates particular persons effectually; he changes them from unable to love God and do spiritual good into able to love God and do good by deterministically causing them to have a different character. The human will does not contribute to this event at all, and man is purely passive. This unconscious change is accompanied by an experience of calling, which activates the newly-implanted dispositions of the regenerate person. [iii]

In the theology of the Church Fathers, the divine energies do not stand in a subordinating relation to human energies. [iv] The empowerment of human nature by God’s grace does not consist in God taking away active power from human nature, or acting for human beings without their exercising libertarian freewill. This is because the energies of God are not dialectically opposed to human energies. In other words, there isn’t a fundamental incompatibility between the uncreated activities of God and the created activities of human beings. It is false that “the more active God is in salvation, the less active man is in salvation” (and visa versa).

Effectual calling requires us to believe that God must deterministically operate upon an individual’s dispositions in order for him or her to be saved. For if God did not do this, then the human will’s necessary opposition to God would require that it continue to remain utterly inactive in salvation. Because the Fathers thought God’s activity and human activity were not fundamentally opposite, God’s activity was thought of as providing human beings with the ability to act and do good, instead of decreasing the contribution that human beings had to action. If Reformed theology appropriates the essence-energies distinction, it then must compromise on its commitment to the fundamental incompatibility of divine activity and human activity in salvation. The Reformed must admit that God gives human beings active power that does not decrease their own contribution to action, but rather increases their own ability to contribute to action.

Reason #2. Reformed and Reformed Evangelical Theologians should reject the Essence-energies distinction because it implies the communication of divine attributes to Christ’s human nature.

Historical debates between Lutheran and Reformed theology have turned on arguments about Christology: are the divine attributes communicated to Christ’s human nature in the Incarnation, or not? Historically the Lutherans have given a resounding “yes” speaking in unity with the teachings of the ancient Church as formally stated at Chalcedon (even if their appropriation of the essence-energies distinction as the correct way to explain this has not been as clear). The Reformed have denied this, saying that the divine attributes are not communicated to Christ’s humanity in reality—no ontological transfer occurs. The communication of attributes is a verbal one, whereby we predicate what is true of the divinity to the humanity, and what is true of the humanity to the divinity, on the basis of the union.[v]

According to the essence-energies distinction, the divine energies flow from the persons of the Trinity. More specifically, they become manifested through the persons’ choices about how to act (energize). If the person of the Word becomes intrinsically united to human nature, and the divine energies flow from the persons of the Trinity and are manifested through them, then the energies are manifested from within human nature. As the Fathers taught, out of Christ’s flesh flows the uncreated glory of God. It is hard, then, to block the inference that Christ’s human nature has divine power communicated to it if we accept the essence energies distinction and believe in the Incarnation.

The choices that a Reformed theologian is presented with are four: (1) accept the Incarnation and deny the essence-energies distinction; (2) accept both and deny that the essence-energies distinction implies the communication of attributes; (3) accept the communication of attributes and the Incarnation and deny the historical tradition of Reformed theology; (4) accept the essence energies distinction and deny the Incarnation. If the proponent of the compatibility of the essence-energies distinction and Reformed theology wishes to uphold (2), then he or she must not merely state that this is false, but show why this is not the case, given the above argument and the fact that the consensus of the Fathers saw the distinction between God’s essence and energies as entailing the communication of attributes.

Reason #3. Reformed and Reformed Evangelical Theologians should reject the Essence-energies distinction because it implies that hell is not divine retribution for sin.

According to patristic theology, none of the divine energies are separate from each other; they cannot be opposed. This includes God’s justice and his mercy. It is not the case that the more just God is to someone, the less mercy he gives to that creature. But intuitively, if God’s justice consists in retribution—“inflicting evil on a person in proportion to their guilt for evil actions they do”—then this is the opposite of being merciful, which involves doing good to a person, even if they have done evils. Defining justice retributively requires opposing justice to mercy. This creates a fundamental opposition within God, such that the more fully one of God’s energies interacts with his creation, the less another one must be shared in by created things.

Instead, the essence-energies distinction, if understood consistently, should lead one to conclude that a different understanding of justice is true—an understanding that doesn’t put justice and mercy into ultimate opposition. For instance, the distinction fits very well with saying that God’s justice consists in his moral harmony. For God to exercise his justice toward the universe means for him to rightly-order his creation by allowing created beings to share in his own moral harmony. This account is compatible with the idea of punishment. It just requires that punishment be understood non-retributively. Thus, punishment would have to be corrective/restorative, preventative, deterrent, the natural consequences of sin, or something else that is not retributively-motivated.

The punishment of hell can still be actively-inflicted. God can manifest his justice in the eschaton by rightly-ordering the cosmos, resurrecting it and endowing it with eternal life. This act of re-ordering the universe permeates creation with divine justice and glory. For those who have fixed their wills in vice, the resurrection of the dead will be painful, involving the ultimate frustration of their purposes; while those who have acquired virtue will experience the re-ordering of the universe for what it truly is—the realization of God’s eternal purpose to make his creation live everlastingly in Christ. The punishment of hell can also be eternal, for God’s will to resurrect the universe and fill it with the fire of his glory cannot be thwarted, and those who have fixed their wills in vice can never experience the restoration of all things as a blessing, but only as a curse.

Stay tuned for further arguments for the incompatibility of Reformed theology and the distinction between essence and energies on the following subjects: ecclesiology, the sacraments, predestination, exegesis, historical theology, and more.

End Notes:

i. Though the analysis given to the idea of essence-energies is very incomplete in David’s quote from Horton.  I will fill out some of the Fathers’ teachings about the distinction below in my arguments.   For further explanation, I recommend the following:

-David Bradshaw’s papers:

-His book Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division in Christendom

-Perry Robinson’s blog

-Other resources available upon request.

ii. Some of the arguments brought up here would also apply to non-Reformed Evangelicals as well, depending on the specifics of their commitments.

iii. See Louis Berkhof Systemmatic Theology, pg 245-247 and pg 465-473.

iv. Consider, for example, the teachings of the sixth Ecumenical Council. Reflecting the doctrine of St. Maximus and other previous Fathers, the writers of this council were very clear about the relationship between the divine will and the human will in Christ:

We confess two natures and two natural wills, and two natural energies in our one Lord Jesus Christ, we do not assert that they are contrary or opposed one to the other…

For as his most holy and immaculate animated flesh was not destroyed because it was deified but continued in its own state and nature, so also his human will, although deified, was not suppressed, but was rather preserved according to the saying of Gregory [the Theologian]: His will [ie., the Savior’s] is not contrary to God but altogether deified.

What is interesting is the Council’s application of a two-wills Christology to anthropology:

…should we say that the human nature of our Lord is without will and operation, how could we affirm in safety the perfect humanity? For nothing else constitutes the integrity of human nature except the essential will, through which the strength of free will is marked in us; and this is also the case with the substantial operation.

v. See Jill Raitt’s The Colloquy of Montbéliard: Religion and Politics in the Sixteenth Century, especially chapter 4 “The Person of Christ” for details about the Luteran-Reformed debates on this subject, and statements of the historical positions.


7 Responses to “Reasons Reformed/Evangelicals Shouldn't Accept the Essence-Energies Distinction (1-3)”

  1. Drewb Says:

    While I think I mostly agree with things you have said here, point #2 seems to lack some gusto. In the case of Dave’s project, it does not seem inappropriate to simply assert #2. Dave is not claiming to snatch the E-E distinction from Greek Orthodoxy and importing it into Reformed Theology. Instead, he asserts that J. Calvin actually used the E-E distinction and the protestant church has forgotten about it. If he was “stealing” this section of theology from the East, then your claims that he has the burden of proof would be valid. I think that you must show the necessity of EO Eucharist theology flowing from the E-E distinction for this point to be valid.

  2. Drewb Says:

    I said Eucharist there and I did not mean to (though it might tie in). So ignore that word.

  3. MG Says:


    My argument in section #2 was twofold. I concentrated mostly on the actual theological argument that can be formally stated like this:

    (1) If the essence-energies distinction is true, then the divine persons are the sources of the energies (the energies are manifested through the persons; in other words, the persons cause the energies to exist in the way that they do)

    (2) If the Incarnation is true, then a divine person is intrinsic to a human nature.

    (3) Therefore, if (1) and (2) are true, then the source of the energies is intrinsic to a human nature.

    (4) If the source of the energies is intrinsic to a human nature, then the energies are intrinsic to human nature.

    Conclusion: therefore, if e/e and the incarnation are true, then the energies are intrinsic to a human nature (Christ’s)

    Because a Reformed person would want to say that the energies are divine attributes, this would entail that divine attributes are intrinsic to human nature and that therefore there is a communication of divine attributes to human nature.

    The second argument I gave (more like mentioned) was that the Fathers thought that e/e and the incarnation entailed the communication of attributes; therefore it is up to David to show this is not the case (given that the Fathers probably understood their view better than we do). This was a supplemental point, and only incidental to the original theological argument given (which I offered irrespective of the commitments of the reader on issues about the authority of tradition; notice that none of my premises assumed “if the Fathers said so, then it must be so” or something like that).

    If it is objected “well, Calvin and Turretin thought that e/e was true, and they didn’t think it implied the communication of attributes” I would say (1) then it was their responsibility to explain why the Fathers were wrong to assume that the incarnation and e/e implied the communication of attributes, and (2) I don’t think Calvin and Turretin believed in the distinction anyway. (though I will have to substantiate this at a later time)

  4. Drewb Says:

    Thanks Michael, that clarifies your point in my mind. My only question to further flesh out your point is to ask you if it is possible that e/e could be understood differently. I ask this to push on whether this is the only possible way to talk about e/e or could you be assuming an EO view of e/e.

    I am not trying to be a pest, I just want to draw this out as explicitly as possible.

  5. MG Says:


    No, you’re not being a pest at all, don’t worry.

    I suppose someone could hold to a different view of God and call that e/e. But that seems to be kinda like saying “I believe in the Christian view of God; I just don’t think he’s a Trinity”. Using the words “Christian view of God” would be misleading, then.

    Also, its interesting to think about whether or not prior commitments independent of “something like e/e is true” could have bearing on what kind of shape “something like e/e” could take. For instance, any view that called itself e/e and entailed the incarnation was impossible would be bad. If you are committed to the idea of (Christ has a human way of acting and a divine way of acting) dyoenergism as part of the doctrine of the Incarnation then it seems you can’t compromise on the claim that the persons of the Trinity are sources of action. This would make it difficult to reject the inferences I made in my argument #2.

    Similarly, one might wonder whether a commitment to the idea that God is perfect would entail that its bad to say that there could be opposition within God. If perfection implies there is no opposition, then this would be a reason to agree with the assumption behind the patristic understanding of the compatibility of the energies that I used in argument #3.

    And perhaps there is more supplemental argument to be given here.

  6. Drake Says:

    I cannot find the rest of these articles. You mentioned you were going to continue and that this was only part 1. Can you help?

  7. ZSDP Says:

    Drake –

    Well, there doesn’t appear to be a draft in the works, so I think this is one of many series that was forgotten. I’ll try reminding MG of this series and see what he says.

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