Saint Gregory Palamas and the Essence/Energies Distinction

On the second Sunday of the Great Lenten Fast, the Orthodox Church commemorates our father among the Saints Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). In this post, we explore St. Gregory’s contributions to Orthodox theology, paying special attention here to his defense of hesychasm and what we call the Essence/Energies distinction.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Who was Saint Gregory Palamas?

Saint Gregory Palamas was an Athonite monk who later became the Archbishop of Thessalonica. Born in Constantinople to a noble Anatolian family, he had always been interested in the monastic life. Around 1318 A.D., he and his two brothers went to Mount Athos and became monks. However, with the Turks encroaching upon Greece, he fled to Thessalonica, where he entered the priesthood in 1326 A.D. Shortly afterward, he took up the eremetic life at a mountain near Beroea, and eventually returned to Athos in A.D. 1331. Six years later, he became involved in a controversy with Barlaam, a Greek monk from Calabria, Italy. (We discuss this controversy in more detail below.)

Saint Gregory Palamas, defender of hesychasm
Icon of St. Gregory from Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos

In A.D. 1347, Palamas became Archbishop of Thessalonica, but the political climate made it impossible for him to take up his see until A.D. 1350. During a voyage to Constantinople, he was captured by Turks and held in captivity for over a year. He died in A.D. 1359, and the Eastern Orthodox Church glorified him a mere 9 years later.

The Hesychastic Controversy

In the early 14th century, a man named Barlaam of Calabria encountered the monks of Mount Athos. These monks practiced the spiritual art of hesychasm, or unceasing prayer, and testified that through this type of prayer they could see the uncreated light of God. Barlaam claimed that the monks wasted their time in fruitless prayer when they could instead come to truly know God through their intellect. In other words, he believed the highest knowledge of God came only from rational means or through the created world. We could not, according to Barlaam, have a direct and unmediated communion with God. Naturally, Saint Gregory Palamas sensed the danger in Barlaam’s teaching here, and he stepped up to defend hesychasm.

After Palamas’ initial criticism of Barlaam, Barlaam replied with a vicious attack on the hesychastic life of the Athonite monks. In rebuttal, Saint Gregory wrote the Triads in defense of the Holy Hesychasts (c. 1338), a brilliant work affirmed by his fellow Hagiorites. A synod held in Constantinople in A.D. 1341 supported Palamas’ views, condemning Barlaam. Three years later, the opponents of hesychasm in the West secured a condemnation for heresy and excommunication for Saint Gregory. Despite this, two additional synods in Constantinople (A.D. 1347 and A.D. 1351) reaffirmed his theology. Many Orthodox Christians and several prominent theologians consider these three synods to constitute the Ninth Ecumenical Council.

The Essence/Energy distinction

Perhaps the most important contribution Palamas made to Orthodox Christian theology was his distinction between the essence and energies of God. While we cannot know God in His essence (God in Himself), we can know Him in his energies (the work of God’s grace in our lives, and who God is in relation to the creation and mankind). Both essence and energies are fully God. Therefore, when interacting with God’s energies, we interact with the uncreated God Himself, while His essence still remains unknowable and unreachable.

Essence vs. Energies: An example

Imagine that God is the sun. We all experience the power and energy of the sun every day. We experience its warmth and light (both of which are energies) through the rays that shine down on us. These rays don’t give us a mere impression of what the sun is; they are not a substitute for the sun, nor do they merely illustrate what the sun is like. They are a real participation in the very energies of the sun itself. In other words, by our contact with the sun’s rays, real changes occur in our human chemistry. At the same time, however, we cannot participate in or experience the essence of the sun. If we tried to approach the essence of the sun, it would overwhelm and annihilate us.

Sun rising in the east over the water
Like the sun, we can experience God in His energies, while His divine essence remains unknowable and unreachable.

So it is with God and His grace. God’s grace is not a participation in the transcendent and unknowable essence of God. However, it is a real experience of God through His divine energies. And it is these energies that were experienced:

  • in the burning bush (Ex. 3:2) and on Mount Sinai (Ex. 24:16)
  • by the priests in the ark of the tabernacle of testimony (1 Kings 8:10)
  • as a cloud and pillar of fire in the wilderness (Ex. 13:21)
  • upon the dedication of the Jerusalem temple (2 Chronicles 7:1)
  • by Saul when a blinding light knocked him from his horse (Acts 9:3-4)
  • by Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor during the Lord’s Transfiguration (Matt. 17)
  • And on many other occasions

In fact, according to Saint Gregory Palamas and many other theologians, the Apostles actually witnessed the uncreated light of God; and it is possible for others to see that same uncreated light of God with the help of repentance, spiritual discipline and contemplative prayer.


Saint Gregory Palamas holds a special place in the heart of the Eastern Orthodox Church. His defense of hesychasm and his clear teachings on how to truly commune with God greatly shaped Orthodoxy as it developed apart from the Roman West. This is why we remember him during Great Lent, a time when returning to God is the entire purpose of spiritual struggle. Through the intercessions of our Father among the Saints, Gregory Palamas, Lord have mercy upon us and save us. Amen.

Read More: The Teachings of the Orthodox Church

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9 Responses

  1. Gregory Palamas taught that “God is Light not according to His Essence but according to His Energy.” [Against Akindynos PG 150 823A]. However, the Nicene Creed of 325 AD states that “the Son of God [is] born out of the Father, only-begotten, that is, out of the essence of the Father, God out of God, light out of light, true God out of true God,
    begotten not made, of one essence with the Father…” The Creed states that Light out of Light indicates the homoousian between Father and Son, that is, the Divine Light is synonymous with the Divine Essence, while Gregory Palamas denies this. His doctrine contradicts that of the fathers of the Council of Nicea. We see the Light through a glass darkly in this life (1 Cor 13:12), but in the age to come as it is (1 Jn 3:2), face to face (1 Cor 13:12). The gospel does not teach that we will see God only in His energies, not in His nature in the age to come. But leaving the latter matter aside, I don’t see how anyone can absolve Gregory Palamas in the passage cited above of having taught contrary to what is taught in the Nicene Creed respecting the ontological status of the Divine Light.

      1. The Creedal article “Light out of Light” is the constant teaching of the Alexandrine Church from the middle of the third century A.D., and is based upon Sacred Scripture (Wis 7:26; Heb 1:3; Jn 1:9; 1 Jn 1:5). Although St. Athanasius varies in his opinions, sometimes ascribing Hebrews 1:3 to a simile taken from the created light of the sun (De Decretis 23-24), at other times he understands it as ontologically determinative of the homoousian/consubstantiality existing between Father and Son itself (cf. Discourse 3.65 Against the Arians). Thus he says in respect to the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D: “and thus He [the Son] and the Father are one, as has been said; unless indeed these perverse men [the Arians] make a fresh attempt, and say that the essence of the Word is not the same as the Light which is in Him from the Father, as if the Light in the Son were one with the Father, but He Himself foreign in essence as being a creature” (On the Decrees of the Nicene Council, Ch 24), while St. Basil of Caesarea declares in regard to the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D.: “Because even at that time there were men who asserted the Son to have been brought into being out of the non-existent, the term homoousion was adopted, to extirpate this impiety. For the conjunction of the Son with the Father is without time and without interval. The preceding words show this to have been the intended meaning. For after saying that the Son was light of light, and begotten of the essence of the Father, but was not made, they went on to add the homoousion, thereby showing that whatever proportion of light any one would attribute in the case of the Father will obtain also in that of the Son. For very light in relation to very light, according to the actual sense of light, will have no variation. Since then the Father is light without beginning, and the Son begotten light, but each of Them light and light; they rightly said of one essence, in order to set forth the equal dignity of the nature” (Letter 52.2 to the Canonicae). Here St. Basil declares that the Nicene Creed teaches that the Light of Godhead is identified with the very nature and essence of God itself, and not with the divine energy per se. Could St. Athanasius be any more clear when he says: “the Apostle [Paul] proclaims the Son to be the Radiance and Expression, not of the Father’s will , but of His own [idion] Essence, saying, ‘Who being the Radiance of His glory and the Expression of His Subsistence (Hebrews 1:3).'” Here the Father’s glory (viz., at the level of the Godhead itself, not what comes down to us) is identified with His very essence, and not with His energy, as in the Palamite theology. This was the prevailing view among the Eastern Fathers (as manifested in the Nicene article Light out of Light homoousian with the Father) prior to the appearance of the writings of the Pseudo Dionysius in the early 6th century A.D., which had the effect of misleading the Greek, Latin and Oriental Churches into believing that his adaptation of the emanationist metaphysics of the Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus Diadochus represented the hidden esoteric teaching of Christ and the apostles, until Renaissance and modern scholarship exposed the pseudonymous character of the Dionysian corpus. Palamas had celebrated ‘Dionysius’ as “the most eminent theologian after the divine apostles” [150 Chapters, Ch 85] – whose works read nothing like theirs, being thoroughly imbued with that ‘vain philosophy after the tradition of men’ (Col 2:8) which St. Paul had so thoroughly disparaged – and modeled his own theology of energetic procession on the divine processions of the Pseudo Dionysius, who modeled his own theology on the emanationist metaphysics of the Neoplatonic philosopher Proclus Diadochus, thus establishing an adapted form of Neoplatonism as the dogmatic teaching of the Eastern Orthodox Church from the 14th century onwards. Nearly every great Church theologian adopted and adapted pagan metaphysics in setting forth a metaphysical interpretation of the gospel teachings (for better or worse), but it was the Byzantine Church alone which dogmatized one particular adaptation of pagan metaphysics as the dogmatic teaching of the Church as a whole, subject to anathema, when such metaphysical musings properly belong to the realm of theological speculation. Unlike Palamas, I do not cherry pick sayings of the Fathers for the purpose of establishing my beliefs, but exhaustively studied what the Fathers of the Church had written in respect to the divine light, the great majority of them identifying the Light of Godhead with the divine essence, based upon Sacred Scripture and the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D., while the Eastern Fathers at any rate tended to view what comes down to us as the divine energy (Epiphanius of Salamis being an exception, whose views were much closer to those of the Latins).

  2. “They are a real participation in the very energies of the sun itself.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by “real”, and I’m not sure if you are replying to Catholics. I’m confused because I don’t think they mean God’s non-“real” relationship with the world is fake or confused.

    1. Jon,

      Christ is in our midst. By “real”, we mean you are participating in the sun, without experiencing the sun’s essence. God bless.

  3. This is no different from the Islamic 99 Names of God, except as any Muslim knows, His Names (or Energies) if you will, are infinite, and manifest in our lower world according to His Will in a variety of ways.

  4. There is a question here for you about Baptism. Please include the complete official statement by your Church. May God bless you.

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