A Question on Eastern vs Western Christian Theology
November 8, 2023, 12:29 PM

Question: What is the difference between the Eastern Christian doctrine of God’s Uncreated Energy vs the Western Christian doctrine of Created Grace? And which is the correct one?

Answer: Thank you so much for your question. I think the first thing to understand is if you're a member of a Protestant church, whether that be a Baptist church, a Presbyterian church, a Lutheran church, etc., you come from a western Christian perspective. If your church recites the Nicene Creed during your service, you might say at the end, "And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son." That phrase, "from the Father and the Son," is known as the filioque (which is Latin for "and the Son"), and it is recited in churches that come from a western Christian perspective. It was one of the bones of contention that led to the split of the Eastern Orthodox Church from the Roman Catholic Church. I only mention this to say if you're a Christian in North America, odds are you come from a western Christian tradition, whether that's Protestant or Roman Catholic.

With that said, I am going to try and explain what is meant by God's Uncreated Energy. (Full disclosure: I am not an expert by any means in Eastern Orthodox theology, so please exercise discernment in what I say). In Eastern Orthodox (EO) thought, there is a distinction between God's essence (Greek, ousia) and His energies (Greek, energeia, or "works"). Put another way, there is a difference and distinction between God in His being and God in His working. We, being created and finite, cannot know God in His essence, in His being. God is infinite, simple (without parts), eternal. In fact, even in describing God in this way, I am more saying what He is not than what He is. However, we can "see" and "know" God through His works, His energies. Moreover, it is proper to speak of God's energy, singular. God is simple and His work is simple. Yet His work is perceived by us as multifaceted, thus we say "energies," or "works." Furthermore, since God's essence is uncreated, His work is also uncreated, thus God's uncreated energy.

All of this seems to go hand in hand with the EO concept of deification, or theosis. We become more like God, or one with God, through His divine energies, namely His grace. As Christ became man without ceasing to be God, we will become God without ceasing to be man. This is, in a nutshell, the goal of salvation according to EO doctrine, deification through a mystical union with God. It is the journey from death to life, from sinfulness to righteousness, from autonomy to mystical union with God.

Created Grace, on the other hand, is God communicating Himself to the creature beyond the demands of nature. For example, the grace given to a sinner that allows him to receive the Holy Spirit. It is not a thing, but is something that God grants to the sinner, so in that sense it's created. God communicates grace to the believer through what are often called means of grace. That is, vehicles through which grace is given. In the Roman Catholic (RC) Church, the means of grace are revelation, the sacraments, the church, good works, prayer. The primary means of grace is through the sacraments, in particular the Eucharist. According to RC theology, the sacraments work ex opere operata, or "by the working of the work." For example, when I receive the Holy Eucharist from the hand of the priest, the grace communicated to me is not a function of the worthiness of the priest who administers it, nor is it a function of the worthiness of me the recipient. The grace conferred is, as it were, automatic simply by receiving the Eucharist.

So, given this (perhaps all too) brief synopsis of uncreated energy and created grace, you ask which view is the correct view? This is the all-important question. I must be perfectly honest with you here at this point. I am a product of western Christianity. My training is as a minister in the tradition of the Protestant Reformation. I have a passing understanding of RC theology and even less of EO theology. I can give you my response and I'm sure more able adherents of both the RC and EO traditions would vehemently disagree with me and give more nuanced answers that support their positions. What I am saying is I have my own biases and prejudices that will color my answer. It's not that I believe there is no answer to give in this situation. It's also not to say that I don't believe the answer I am about to give. It's to say I am a man. I am saved by grace through faith, but I am still fallen and fallible. Take what I say and compare it to the Scriptures. Be a "good Berean."

There is a lot to commend the EO idea of uncreated energy especially in relation to the idea of God's essence. God is incomprehensible to the created being. The finite cannot contain the infinite. As the Apostle Paul says, "Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!" (Romans 11:33 NKJV). The only way we know anything about God is if God condescends to reveal Himself to us. Thankfully, He did by His word and His works:

[1] The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork. (Psalm 19:1 NKJV)

[19] Because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. [20] For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, [21] because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:19-21 NKJV)

[1] God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, [2] has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; [3] who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, (Hebrews 1:1-3 NKJV)

Protestants believe and teach that God has revealed Himself to us through two means: (1) General Revelation and (2) Special Revelation. You can also say there are two books, the book of nature and the book of Scripture. Through nature, we know that God is. Through Scripture, we know that God is gracious, merciful, holy, and just. Through nature, we know God as Creator. Through Scripture, we know God as Savior. The most full and perfect revelation of God is in and through Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son. In the prologue of John's Gospel, we learn that in the beginning was the Word who was with God and is God (John 1:1-3). We learn that the eternal Word became the incarnate Word and dwelt among us (John 1:14) and that this eternal and incarnate Word came to make the Father known (John 1:18).

That said, I find the EO position weak in that is makes such a sharp distinction between God's essence and His energy. Calling the energy "uncreated" seems problematic to me. It basically says we can know nothing of the essence of God. We can only know God through His energy, His works. Yet, as I read Scripture, we can know something of God's being through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God. In the upper room, when Philip asks Jesus to show him the Father, Jesus says, "Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, 'Show us the Father'?" (John 14:9 NKJV). Remember, Jesus came to make the Father known (the Greek word is exēgeomai, from which we get "exegesis"). So, while we can't know God exhaustively, we can know God truly through all of Scripture and most fully in the person of Jesus Christ.

One final thing regarding the EO position. The whole idea of theosis smacks more of Platonic and Neo-Platonic philosophy than Christian theology. It's couched in Christian terminology, but it has a distinct feel of Neo-Platonic pantheism underneath.

Regarding the RC position. Obviously, being a Christian in the western tradition, I would gravitate more closely to the RC position. I firmly believe that God grants us grace and He does this primarily and ordinarily through the means of grace. But being a Protestant in the Reformed tradition, I whole-heartedly disagree with the notion of the means of grace working ex opere operata, or through the working of the work. RC theology can teach this because according to RC theology, when you take the Eucharist, you are literally feeding on the body of Christ. Your disposition of faith does not seem to enter the equation. By the "miracle" of transubstantiation, the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ; no faith required. This seems to go against what the Scripture teaches when both the Apostle Paul and the author of Hebrews, citing the Prophet Habakkuk, say, "the just shall live by faith" (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38). The means of grace are effective because they are received by faith. In other words, you believe that God is dispensing His saving grace through these means that He has ordained. Means such as, word, sacrament, and prayer. The grounds of our salvation (the basis upon which our salvation is guaranteed) is the person and work of Christ. The means by which we are made partakers of this salvation is by, or through, faith.

The Heidelberg Catechism (a question-and-answer teaching tool developed in 1563) asks, "Why do you say that you are righteous by faith only?" The answer it gives is, "Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith, but only because the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God; and I can receive the same and make it my own in no other way than by faith only" (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 23, Question 61). Later, in reference to the sacraments (and in Protestant theology, we believe there are only two sacraments: Lord's Supper and Baptism), the catechism asks, "Since, then, we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, where does this faith come from?" The answer, "The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel and confirms is by the use of the holy sacraments" (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 25, Question 65). The faith needed to receive the means of grace is granted by the Spirit working through the preached word and strengthened by the sacraments. This a far cry from what RC theology teaches.

So, while I agree with the RC position on Created Grace vs Uncreated Energy, I disagree with the RC position on how that grace is received in the life of the believer. The Bible clearly teaches that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). When Paul says "saved," he is referring to everything that pertains to our salvation: Justification (we have been saved), Sanctification (we are being saved), and Glorification (we will be saved). All of this is based on God's grace to us in Christ and received through the open hand of faith, resting and trusting in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

I truly hope and pray this helped.

Post a Comment