Aquinas and Palamas on the divine essence and energy

In a recent term paper, I argued that Aquinas and Palamas share a noteworthy amount of common ground in their respective understandings of divine simplicity, transcendence, and knowability. I’m not 100% persuaded by every step of my own argument, but I’ve landed on at least one (pretty significant) conclusion with a fair degree of certainty.

Whatever Aquinas is getting at when he speaks of our knowledge of God’s “essence,” he is not suggesting (as so many Orthodox polemicists accuse him of suggesting) that we can know God as God is in Himself. As he quite unambiguously puts it in his Commentary on the Divine Names, “God can be known by us in so far as we know the participations of God’s goodness, but in so far as God is in Godself God is hidden to us” (II.2; emphases mine). For the deeply Dionysian Aquinas, “in so far as it is in itself the first principle is communicated to nothing and thus does not go out from itself” it is wholly beyond knowledge or description (CDN II.2).

Aquinas thus affirms both (1) that God in Godself is absolutely unknowable and (2) that God is truly knowable in his processions toward creation. It’s therefore tremendously misleading (if not outright dishonest) for Orthodox apologists to claim that “whereas for the East God is beyond knowing, Aquinas regards Him as the highest intelligible object.” For Aquinas (as for Palamas, Damascene, Dionysius, Maximus, and the Cappadocians), God is knowable insofar as he deigns to be knowable, and unknowable insofar as he dwells in what Dionysius calls his “transcendent hiddenness.”

This raises serious questions about what exactly Aquinas means by the term essentia, since he evidently doesn’t mean by it (at least his commentary on Dionysius) what Palamas means by ousia: namely, God in Godself. To honestly and responsibly bring Palamas’ ousia-energeia distinction into conversation with Aquinas’ conception of divine simplicity, one would need to begin by wrestling with these terminological questions — not by assuming that since they’re both translated “essence” in English, ousia and essentia function identically in Aquinas’ and Palamas’ respective theologies.

I’m in way over my head here, and don’t feel great about my paper. But what all this makes more or less totally clear to me is that East-West theological dialogue should be terminological before it’s dogmatic, since, as David Bentley Hart notes,

In any modern engagement between Christian East and Christian West … we begin from very different theological grammars, and with terminologies that can achieve only proximate correspondences … [In] order to understand another intellectual tradition, rooted in a different primary language, it is not enough to translate its terms into one’s own dialect and then proceed to interpret them according to the rules of one’s own tradition.

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