Who is the God of the Christians?
The most fundamental claim of the Christian Church is its belief in the one true and living God.
“Hear O Israel: the Lord our God is one God; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be placed upon your heart, and you shall teach them to your children…” (Deut 6:4)
This claim was not simply born out of any religious need to relate to something superior out of psychological needs for security in the face of the unknown nor was it only a result of a thirst for truth and true knowledge arising out of logical necessity. Rather for the Christians and indeed for the Hebrew people the starting point for God was a concrete historical event. While it was an intimate personal encounter with Abraham that verified God’s existence to the Israelites, for the Christians it has been the ultimate intervention God in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ.
God revealed himself to Moses and spoke with him “face to face” as one person speaks to another person (Ex 33:11) and revealed the mystery of his name. “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” (Ex 3:13)
God proclaims Himself to be the one who IS, the “Existing One”, the one true and living God. This name for God, “I am who I am” means that God draws his existence from Himself existing eternally without beginning and without end. For the Israelites, this God whose name was “I am who I am” was the one true and living God who remained so faithful that he formed several covenants with his chosen people continuing to fulfil all his promises to them. According to the Scriptures, the name of God was so sacred that it was never mentioned.
The Orthodox Christian tradition teaches that the one true God is the perfection and super perfection of all that we know to be good, true, wise, just, all-powerful, righteous and loving without God ever being exhausted by these attributes. These characteristics of God cannot be compared with those of our experience since He is beyond all these. So, for example, while it is true to say that God exists, yet He is ‘above existence’. Ultimately Orthodox theology would claim that God cannot be defined as “existing” or “not existing” since He is not a “being” who exists the way that created human beings exist. However God offers himself to our existence with the amazing an immeasurable intimacy in a relationship of person to person. Yet this familiarity does not exhaust our understanding of who God is. And since we cannot easily grasp who God is, He remains forever the cause of our wonder and astonishment.
It is this one and true living God who in a concrete historical framework sends His son, Jesus Christ, who now makes the almighty God known and experienced as “Father”. Jesus continues to emphasise the uniqueness and oneness of God but also underlines that he has a unique relationship with this God – he is the Son of God. Jesus, who is able to call God “father” because he is the only begotten Son of the Father, also allows us to relate to God with the intimate title of “abba” which means “father”. In fact even though the word “abba” is an Aramaic word meaning father it carries with it a nuance of familiarity and intimacy bringing it close, in meaning to the term “daddy”. With Jesus, not only can we pronounce the name of God, but we are now commanded to pray using this intimate name for God. This was unheard of for the Hebrew people who would not dare even to pronounce the name of God let alone refer to him as “abba”.
Furthermore, by the sending of the Spirit, we can continue to this day to refer to God as “father and therefore can dare to pray in the following manner: “Our Father in heaven…”: on this way making us also sons of God.
“For when the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying “Abba! Father!”. So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir of the eternal kingdom of God. (Gal 4:4-7)
In stressing the personal dimension of God, the Church wanted to show that we cannot draw near to God simply by learning certain facts about Him. That is to say that since God is a person, knowing him implies much more than being able to reiterate certain facts. Rather we approach God by means of a personal encounter and experience with him. Since the one God is our Father – a person, not an idea – we are called to place our trust and hope in him and ultimately to love Him just like we do other persons around us. And even though today we may not have directly encountered the historical person of God as revealed in his Son Jesus, slowly we surrender ourselves in trust since others before us, whom we consider trustworthy – the apostles, fathers, prophets and saints of our Church – guarantee his credibility. In this endless journey of lesser to greater trust in this personal meeting with God, the birth of love gives rise to an absolute surrender, self-offering and uninterrupted astonishment at the unquenchable thirst for Godwhere intellectual and logical certainties become superfluous.
In contemplating this mystery of who God is we therefore come to conclude that God is personal; he is Father. And this leads us to the claim that God is at same time one in three persons and three persons yet one God. However, how this is so we will examine in later issues of this column.
Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
How the Formulation of God as Trinity Came About
In the last issue of Vema, we said that the Christian God is at the same time three persons yet one God and one God in three persons. The question that needs answering today is why Christians believe in a God who is “Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity one in essence and inseparable” as is sung in the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (4th century). Why is not God believed in the same way that Jews of Muslims believe in God? How did the doctrine of the one God in three distinct persons come about since there is no explicit mention of this in the Scriptures? Having stated that there are no explicit Biblical references to God as Trinity, one can not however conclude from this that there are no references to God the Father, the Son (God’s Word) of God and the Holy Spirit. The numerous affirmations of God’s interaction with the world, for example are always expressed in terms of “the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.” (Eph 2:18-22). Therefore the doctrine of the Holy Trinity was not the result of mere intellectual speculation or philosophical deduction. Rather, it arose from humanity’s deepest encounter with the living and personal God.
In beginning to answer the question of how the formulation of God as Trinity came about, the first affirmation to be made is that the early Church stressed the mysterious aspect of the Holy Trinity. However, the expression, “mystery” was not understood as something that was a secret and therefore unknowable. In his letter to the Ephesians, St Paul wrote:
“He has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ” (Eph 1:9).
Therefore the concept of mystery in the Christian Scriptures implied something that was hidden but now revealed in order to be experienced on a personal level. Therefore, while it is true that God, in his very nature is inexpressible and infinitely surpasses any human notions, yet He has disclosed himself to the world as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The second important point to be made is that, in the early Church the doctrine of the Trinity began with a confession of Jesus – who He was and what He did. And it was only after this personal encounter with Jesus that the fathers of the Church discovered his relationship with the living God to be one of Father to Son. In fact, in the early Church, the doctrine of God as Trinity did not form part of the exterior preaching of the Church. Only those who were baptised and active members of the Church knew the doctrine of God as Trinity. Only upon accepting the proclamation of Jesus and being committed to this, could God then be confessed as Trinity. In other words, belief in the Trinity came about, only after the existential encounter with the living God through Christ who was raised and glorified and living among His creation through the seal and gift of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church.
This point is important because it highlights that the starting point for God is not some abstract idea of how God ought to be. And for today, this great mystery of God as Trinity can only be approached after an encounter with the person of Jesus for the simple reason that this is precisely how God chose to reveal himself to the world. For the fathers of the Church, it was after experiencing and accepting who Jesus was that led to the proclamation that He had exactly the same divinity as his Father. Finally they then came to confess that the Holy Spirit too was also divine with the same divinity as God the Father. And it was this discovery which led them to proclaim that the Christian God is three persons, (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) yet one Godhead. All this was clearly articulated in the fourth century. In fact St Gregory the Theologian (4th century), who was bishop of Nazianzus in Asia Minor was the first to explicitly name the Holy Spirit is God:
“When I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Nevertheless this statement was understood as beginning with an experience of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit leading to the proclamation of God as father.
Having stated that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity was formulated after a careful study and experience, by the fathers of the gospel image of Christ, we now turn to examine what the Scriptures affirm about Christ as this will lead us to the conclusion of the divinity of the Son and Spirit. Now, in the synoptic Gospels (that is the gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke, so named because they look alike and most probably derived from a common source and different from St John’s gospel, which is the first theological statement of the Church) the ministry of Jesus begins with his Baptism in the Jordan River. The baptism account, which is incidentally recorded in all four gospels, has a clear Trinitarian structure to it. Jesus is revealed as the Messiah; the voice of God the Father is heard saying, “this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17) and the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove confirming the truth of the Father’s words. From the very beginning the early Church understood the baptism of Jesus as a manifestation of God acting towards the world with his Son and his Holy Spirit.
After the baptism of Jesus, the New Testament claims that Jesus began his public ministry performing all the Messianic signs, which the Old Testament Scriptures affirmed that the expected Messiah would do. In performing these signs, Jesus wanted to show that he was the Messiah, whom the Israelites were awaiting. The Christian Scriptures do not only claim that he preached the “good news” to all; cast out demons; performed countless miracles but that He also forgave the sins of people. Since the Scriptures claim that only God can forgive sins, this event in itself was a clear indication, for the Church fathers that Jesus was divine with the same divinity as his Father. However, the central confession of who Jesus is took place when Jesus himself asked his disciples, as they are walking on their way to Caesarea Philippi who they thought that He was:
“But who do you say that I am? Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16).
The answer to this question, given by Peter in the synoptic gospels but by Martha in the gospel according to St John, formed the very foundation of the Trinitarian dogma. Peter answered that Jesus was the Christ; that is, the anointed one of God, the Messiah of Israel sent into the world to save people from their sins. Furthermore, Peter’s answer began to make manifest, for the early Church, the relationship of Jesus to God the Father.
Another central event recorded in the gospels is that of the transfiguration of Christ. This too, like the baptism manifested his special relation to God. Immediately after the confession of Peter that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God, Jesus told his disciples of his forthcoming suffering which was received resentfully by the disciples. The gospels then record Jesus going up to Mr Tabor with Peter, James and John showing them his glory when he transfigures in front of them, his face shining like the sun and his clothes becoming white as snow (cf Matt 17:2). Here, as in the baptism account, the voice of the Father is heard saying, “this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear him!” (Matt 17:5) the presence of the Holy Spirit is recorded – this time in the form of a cloud; and Christ shining with the uncreated light speaking with Moses and Elijah symbolising heaven and earth. Clearly the transfiguration has a Trinitarian structure to it especially attesting to the divinity of Jesus through a display of his uncreated, divine energy. Moreover the shining of the face of Jesus like the sun demonstrated that Jesus is God because God is light (cf 1 Jn 1:5). Finally the titles of Jesus as mentioned above – Christ as the Messiah, the Son of God and the Christ are reaffirmed.
After Jesus came down from the mountain, he spoke to his disciples of his crucifixion and asked those who were trying to catch him out “Who is the Messiah?”. This, he asked so that he could show that he is the Messiah and Lord. When Jesus asked about who Christ was, the people, knowing the Scriptures, answered, “David’s son.” Jesus then referred to Psalm 110 quoting the most quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament. Quite simply, he asked them, “How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying “the Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand till I put your enemies under your feet!” (Psalm 110). If David thus calls him Lord, how is he his son?” (Matt 22:41-46).
Wanting to show them that He is Lord, like God, he asked them why David, inspired by the Holy Spirit, called Christ, the Lord if he was to be David’s son since a father never calls his son Lord. Even though Biblical scholarship has shown that the term “lord” was a popular title used to refer to any man yet when prefixed by the definite article, “the” it referred solely to God. So surely if Jesus too is referred to as the Lord, he too must be divine.
Coming to recognise that Jesus was the Messiah, the early Church wanted to articulate his relationship with God. And in the Scriptures the affirmation is made that Jesus is God’s Son; that God is his Father. Furthermore, the New Testament Scriptures claim that Jesus is God’s Word, uncreated, divine and existing from all eternity. In his gospel, St John wrote that:
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1).
From this, the early Christians concluded that God’s Word was not only divine but that God was never without his Word. Upon further reading, we discover that God’s Word became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14). The early Church soon discovered that whatever was said about the true God in the Hebrew Scriptures was also said about the man Jesus in the New Testament. And it was precisely for this reason that the early Christians, in reflecting upon all this, were able to claim that the man Jesus was also God with exactly the same divinity as his Father.
Now, not only was the Word of God acting with God in the world but so was the Spirit of God active in the world from the very beginning. In the Genesis account of creation, we read that “the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). The early Church became aware that the Holy Spirit was always involved with God and his Word in such a way that all three persons were always acting together. In the Hebrew Scriptures there is no evidence of God acting alone without speaking his Word and breathing his Spirit. So even in the Old Testament we have God and His Word and His Spirit acting together – all distinct yet divine with the same divinity. Even though it would be St Gregory the Theologian who would affirm the personhood of the Holy Spirit in the fourth century, for the first time, that is not to says that this teaching is altogether absent from the New Testament.
There are many indicators betraying the personal and divine character of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is described as teaching, interceding, helping, and searching the hearts of people – activities only ascribed to a person (cf Jn 14:16-26); the Holy Spirit is attributed with the same qualities as God the Father – therefore the Spirit of God is the Spirit of life (Rom 8:11), the Spirit of truth (Jn 16:13) and the Spirit of divine sonship (Rom 8:14) to name a few. It is this Spirit which makes possible our personal encounter with Jesus who is the perfect image of God the Father. This is how the formulation of the Trinity came about. It began with Jesus followed by the confession that Jesus was divine with the same divinity as his Father and that the Holy Spirit was also God, distinct from the Father and the Son, yet all united as one.
Lastly, a question which justifiably arose in the early Church was how all this did not lead to a confession of three Gods? In his letter to Ablabius, St Gregory of Nyssa (4th century), used the analogy of three distinct human persons (for example Peter, James and John) yet each of the three possessing one common human nature. He argued that when speaking of “what” these three persons are, we would claim that they are one – i.e., one common human nature. But if we were to ask “who” they are, then we would assert that they are three. This analogy of three human beings possessing the same humanity was used to demonstrate that in the Godhead, there are three distinct divine persons yet one divinity.
From the above analysis, we showed that in expounding the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the Christian Church began with the community of the three persons in the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and then asserted their oneness. In the mystery of the Holy Trinity, Christians would claim that there are three distinct and equal persons, divided yet each possessing the fullness of the divinity. Thus according to St Gregory the Theologian, “the Godhead is undivided in separate persons.” The same father wrote;
“No sooner do I conceive on the Unity than the Trinity bathes me in its splendour. And when I think of the Trinity, again the Unity seizes me and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me.”
Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
Who is God the Father?
Having discussed the Tri-unity and Unity of God, the ensuing articles of VEMA will endeavour to articulate the distinctive characteristics of each Person of the Trinity.
The fathers of the early Church, faithful to the Scriptures, considered the term “God”, when used as a proper name, belonging primarily to God the Father. Therefore the Scriptures claim that the Son (Jesus Christ) is the “Son of God” and the Spirit is the “Spirit of God.” The Christian Bible claims that God is both the Father of Israel and Father of his only begotten Son Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament, there are many passages, which refer to God as Father. For example Deuteronomy describes the relationship between the people of Israel and God in terms of fatherhood:
“Is not he your father who created you and established you?” (Deut 32:6)
Elsewhere in the Scriptures God is depicted, in a strikingly profound way, lovingly caring for, and having compassion on his people:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him and out of Egypt I called my son… I took them up in my arms… I led them with bands of love… I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” (Hos 11:1-4)
In the New Testament, the image of God as father is taken up by Jesus and it becomes the most characteristic way in which Jesus addresses God. So intimate is Christ’s relationship with God, his Father, that He says to Philip, his apostle:
“He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (Jn 14:9)
And the image of God as loving Father is fully made known in the giving of His Son to redeem, sanctify and unite the entire world with him:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16)
God is Father because here He is depicted as the ground of all confidence, trust and our existence. It was for this reason that in the early Christian tradition the name of God as Father did not refer to some characteristic of God but signified his very being.
In analysing the fatherhood of God, the second point would be that the term ‘father’, used to describe the one God of faith in the Scriptures is not a title projected onto God by human persons. For the early Church the title ‘father’ was never meant to imply any biological maleness to God or attribute to him any so called masculine characteristics. Therefore, in reflecting upon the mystery of the God as Father, it is of paramount importance to detach from this title any patriarchal or male notions of human fatherhood. As Father, God is not a coercive or authoritarian father-figure holding his creation to him by force. Rather, in the early Church it was only in gazing upon the only begotten Son and Word of God in the flesh that God came to be called “father” beyond any anthropomorphic notions of human fatherhood. Therefore God the Father is beyond any human characteristics whether they be male or female. Indeed God the Father is described with certain attributes usually associated with the feminine: God is compared to a midwife (Ps 22:9) and a suckling mother (Isa 49:15) and even a mother comforting her child:
“As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” (Isa 66:13)
Nevertheless the Orthodox tradition would claim that the term ‘father’ is not simply one of many metaphors or images used to describe God’s qualities but is the distinctive term addressed by Jesus to God. Its unshakeable basis lies in Jesus’ intimate and filial relationship to God whom he witnessed and proclaimed during his earthly ministry and therefore this term cannot be surrendered in favour of other language about God.
From what has been said thus far, we can see clearly that the name of God as Father is a purely theological term – which is to say, that it has always been understood in terms of God’s eternal relation to his Son. It was in his self-revelation to the world in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, that God clearly made Himself known as Father. Therefore it is in respect to God being the Father of His Son that he must be called Father. In other words, this specific attribute of God is defined primarily in terms of his relationship to his Son and not to his fatherhood of the universe. In contemplating God, in faith, the Christian fathers came to see that God is not alone in his divinity, but from all eternity had a Son and it was for this reason that He was called Father. In fact, in the Scriptures of Israel, God the Father was never without His Word or Spirit nor did He act in the world alone. For this reason, St Irenaeus (2nd century) described God as acting with his two hands, that is to say His Son and Spirit. In the Fourth Gospel we read that the Word of God,
“was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (Jn 1:2-3).
The above passage makes it clear that Jesus Christ was not only the agent through whom the world was created but existed, from the very beginning with God the Father.
Now, in fellowship with the one Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ the early Christians also dared to call God “abba” which means “beloved father” or “daddy”. The early Christians, in partaking of the life Christ, made possible through God’s ongoing presence in the Holy Spirit were also entitled to call God ‘father’ as Jesus did.
“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God… When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (Rom 8:14-15)
As God’s children (Gal 3:26) living in union with Jesus Christ, we too are adopted in God’s eternal kingdom becoming, by grace heirs of His eternal life with all the gifts belonging by nature to God’s Son. Calling God, father was unprecedented as previous to that all people of Israel considered the name of God too sacred even to pronounce. The reference to God as Father by the early Church was used only after the revelation of the perfect image of God to the world in the person of Jesus Christ who taught his followers to pray to God in what came to be called the Lord’s prayer: “Our father in heaven…” The communion between God and the world realised by Jesus Christ was such that the gap between the divine and the world was bridged to such an extent, which now made possible the invocation of God as Father.
For the early Christian tradition, it was only to the extent that the early Christians dwelt in the only begotten Son that they could refer to Christ’s Father as their Father as well. It was for this reason, that, in the early Church, the Lord’s prayer, which was directed to God the Father, was not taught to the catechumens (those preparing to become Christian) until a few days before their baptism because they did not have the competence to call God, “abba” and could not do so because they were not in Jesus and had not yet received the Holy Spirit. According to St John Chryssostom, in the East, the Lord’s prayer was only taught for the first time to the catechumens on Holy Thursday so that they could recite it for the first time during the Paschal liturgy where they would have been baptised and sealed with the Spirit. So it is only in fellowship with the Son of God that we too can call God, Father. This universal scope of God’s fatherhood in which all Christians are now invited to share, is a call for all to enjoy all that the Father has naturally given to His Son by grace.
From the above brief analysis, two aspects of God’s Fatherhood have been discerned: God as our “adoptive” Father in Jesus Christ, and God as the “generative” Father of His Son from all eternity and it is the second of these two aspects of fatherhood that we now turn to. Upon reflecting upon the mystery of God, the early Church described God as Father since He had generated or given birth, from all eternity to his Son, the Word of God. In this understanding, God is called Father simply because He has a Son by nature from all eternity – that is to say, that there was never a time when God was not Father since his Son and Spirit are co-eternal with Him. All statements concerning the generation of the Son intend to state explicitly that God’s only begotten Son, was not merely created by the Father but that He is of the same essence or substance (homoousios) with the Father; something which cannot be said about the created world.
It is in this eternal begetting of the Son that God is known as Father. The Christian tradition would therefore claim that the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father, but that God the Father proceeds from no other cause or origin – rather He is the origin and cause of the divine persons of the Son and Spirit. God the Father is precisely Father in that He is the one supreme almighty being, uncreated, self-sufficient, all-perfect, who is the transcendent fount, source and author of all other beings. The Christian tradition would therefore claim that God is Father since He is without origin and secondly since He is both Father of the Son, and the One from whom the Spirit proceeds from all eternity. As the eternal ‘origin’ of the Godhead God is the “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14) – that is, God the Father who does not draw His existence from any other reality.
Thus far, we have seen that the fathers of the early Church always described the one God of faith as “Father” indeed “Father almighty”. There is one God, not necessarily because there was one essence in God but primarily because there is one Father. In the Symbol of Faith (known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed) we confess that the one God in whom we believe is the Father almighty. Only then do we continue to confess our faith in Christ and the Holy Spirit: “I believe in one God, Father almighty…. and in one Lord Jesus Christ… and in the Holy Spirit.” We believe in one God because we claim that there is one Father. Therefore in reflecting upon the Godhead we say that it is one because there is one cause who is the Father. This was clearly affirmed by St Basil the Great in the fourth century who succinctly said that:
“God is one because the Father is one.”
However in beholding the persons in whom the Godhead dwells, we worship three persons since the Son and Holy Spirit from all eternity and with equal glory have their being from the Father. The fathers however would even that since the Father is the sole cause and origin of the Godhead that He is “greater” that His Son and Spirit even though there is an essential identity of essence. This was the spirit in which the early Church interpreted the words of Jesus found in the Gospel of John: “the Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28).
We end with a quote from St John of Damascus (675-749), who in his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, affirmed the essential dependence of the Son and Spirit upon the Person of the Father in a clear, coherent and concise way:
“Whatsoever the Son has from the Father, the Spirit also has, including His very being. And if the Father does not exist, then neither does the Son and the Spirit; and if the Father does not have something, then neither has the Son or the Spirit. Furthermore, because of the Father, that is, the Son and the Spirit are; and because of the Father, the Son and the Spirit have everything that they have”.
From the above quote, we would conclude that the Orthodox tradition declares that God the Father is distinguished from the other Persons as eternally begetting from His nature God the Son and as breathing forth the Holy Spirit; the Son is distinguished, in his person as being eternally begotten of the Father; and the Holy Spirit as eternally proceeding from the Father.
Having briefly outlined the specific characteristic of God as Father, we must however affirm that in reference to other attributes of God, what the Father is, the Son and Holy Spirit also are since they are of the same essence and share the same divine nature with God. Thus if God the Father is everlasting and eternal, invisible, incomprehensible, unfathomable; loving, wise, holy and pure, so is God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Not only is their nature and essence identical but also their will and action towards the world is common. Now, since God the Father is inherently productive and creative in his very nature – in that He generated His Son and breathed forth His Spirit from all time – is He also Creator and “maker of heaven and earth”. However, it is clear that the Father created the world through his Son (Word) and in the Holy Spirit; and it is to this unified action of God to create the world out of nothing that we will turn out attention in the next issue of VEMA.
Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
God the Creator
God creates out of nothing
The Orthodox Christian tradition claims that God the Father is the “Creator of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible”. Such a conviction rejects other ancient theories of creation such as Hyloism, Dualism of Pantheism which believed that the world always existed and therefore did not need any power to bring it into existence. Furthermore, such ancient cosmogonies in denying a divine origin to the world also denied the need of a sustaining power. In sharp contrast to the belief that the world was formed from pre-existent matter, the Orthodox teaching of creation asserts that it is God who called the world from non-existence into being creating it out of nothing. Even though the term “out of nothing”is a philosophical one and not found in the Scriptures as such, it nevertheless expresses appropriately what is described in the Bible. The teaching of the creation of the world “out of nothing” finds is Biblical basis in the second book of Maccabees where a mother is seen consoling her son who is about to bear martyrdom. She says:
“I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out things that existed. And in the same way the human race came into being” (2 Macc 7:28).
Furthermore the New Testament states that:
“By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of visible things” (Heb 11:3).
Both Biblical verses essentially state that the entire universe was created out of things not seen, that is, out of things that have no existence. It is for this reason that we would state that the creation of the world out of nothing signifies that that the world did not come into being by means of pre-existent matter.
Creation and the Holy Trinity
If we read the Scriptures regarding the creation of the world by God carefully, then we notice that God creates the world out of nothing with the presence of His divine Word (Jesus Christ) and His Spirit. That is to say that the act of creation is a Trinitarian action. In other words, God the Father brings all things into existence by means of His Divine Word “for He spoke and it came to be” and by means of His divine Spirit “who swept over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). According to the Patristic tradition, the plural pronoun used in Genesis, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen 1:26) is a clear indication of all three persons of the Trinity taking part in the act of creation. St Basil the Great summarised this wonderfully in saying that:
“we should understand in creation the original cause of the Father as a founding cause, the cause of the Son as a creative one, and the cause of the Spirit as an implementing one.”
In the letter to the Corinthians St Paul writes: “yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things.” (1 Cor 8:6). Regarding the role of the Son, the Gospel according to St John states quite explicitly that “all things were made through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (Jn 1:3). Lastly the Holy Spirit is the one whom God sends and the world is created: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created”(Ps 104:30). It is for this reason that the Christian tradition would claim that creation is a common act of Father, Son and Holy Spirit where the Father intends, the Son activates and the Holy Spirit perfects.
The creation of the cosmos
It is the first chapter of the book of Genesis, which gives the primary Scriptural description of creation. From the outset one has to point out that this is not to be read scientifically since the author””s chief concern was a doctrinal one – that God alone is uncreated and ever existing but out of His immense love creates the world so that all could share in His beatitude. Another point worthy of mention is that God does not create the world literally in seven days as some would like to suggest. Again this is made clear in the second letter of Peter: “but do not ignore this one fact that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Pet. 3:8). Within the six days of God””s creative work (since God rests on the seventh) one can detect a general order or hierarchy from what could be called the general to the specific.
God first created the first foundations of existence (the heavens and the earth) from where over a period of time other creatures came forth. Firstly God called into being the light of the day (Gen 1:3-5); on the second day the earth””s atmosphere was created (Gen 1:6-8); God then separated the waters from the dry land and planted the different vegetation of the earth (Gen 1:9-13); on the fourth day God created the sun, the moon and the stars (Gen 1:14-19); God then put forth swarms of living creatures of both the sea and air on the fifth day (Gen 1:20-23); and finally God created the land animals and humanity (Gen 1:24-30) and rested on the great Sabbath. All this description of the origins of the world wants to show simply that God is the universal Lord of all the universe who causes the cosmos to come into existence by an act of His will. Equally important, the Biblical account of creation claims that everything in creation is very good. St John Chrysostom writes that:
“The creation is beautiful and harmonious, and God has made it all just for your sake. He has made it beautiful, grand, varied and rich.”
From this we can see that God is pleased with His creation and has created it for no other purpose than to participate in His own goodness, truth and beauty. This is crucially important today for those who believe that the body is bad and the aim of life is to become like the “angels”. In fact the Patristic tradition is very clear in stating that human beings, because they have a body, are considered higher than the angels having greater potentialities than the angels. Besides, in Greek the word for the world (kosmos) is related with the world for beauty.
The importance of the teaching of the world out of nothing
According to Archbishop Stylianos there are four important consequences, which can be drawn from the truth, that God as Trinity creates the world out of nothing. They are as follows:
a) creation is an act of absolute freedom on God’s part;
b) creation is an act of God’s absolute love;
c) God, as creator is absolutely other or different from the world; and
d) creation, though fragile has the potential to become immortal by God’s grace. And it is to these four truths that we now turn.
From the teaching that the Trinitarian God created the world out of nothing, we are led to four other implications. A doctrinal article which results from the creation ‘out of nothing in theology is that God creates in absolute and perfect freedom. Creation is therefore a free act, a gratuitous act of God. If the world was created out of pre – existing matter then this would imply that God was forced to create out of an internal or external necessity and compulsion which is entirely incompatible with the absolute freedom of His will. Duns Scotus from the Western middle ages summarises remarkably that,
“The creation of the world is accomplished by God not out of any necessity, whether of essence or of knowledge or of will, but out of a sheer freedom which is not moved by anything external that it should not have to be a cause.”
Therefore Christian doctrine opposes every cosmological and philosophical speculation about the origin of the world – such as Hylozoism of the ancients or Pantheism – which regards that all things came into being from pre – existent chaotic matter or as a natural emanation of the Divine Essence.
Since the world was created out of nothing, the Orthodox Christian tradition would claim that it was created out of God’s absolute love. God’s motive in creation was to share His love – it is this love that causes God to go outside of Himself and to create things other than Himself. The principle of love is very important since it implies that the starting point of existence was not one of impersonal logical necessity; the source is not the blind urge of an impersonal, absolute Nature. Rather it is the love of a personal God who actualises existence, since He loves. In the Bible we read that “God is love” (1 John 4.16). It does not tell us that God has love – that love is an attribute. The Bible assures us that what God is is love – that the mode by which God is is love. Since, God is the true Existence and life, the principle and source of being, then in all cases being, existence and life are inseparable from the dynamic of love. Since, the mode by which God exists is love, and from this mode springs every possibility and expression of life, therefore life must function as love in order to be actualised.
Since the world has been created out of nothing this implies that there exists an ontological gap between the Creator and the created. According to a successful formalation of Karl Barth, when comparing God to the created world, he said that God is the wholly other. St Cyril of Alexandria puts this very clearly when he writes that the fathers
“affirm that all things, both in heaven and on earth have been constructed by Him so that thereby He should be recognised as having no natural affinity at all with creation; for the difference between creator and created is incomparable, between a nature uncreated, unadorned with the distinction of empire, possessed of divine and supramundane glory, and a nature under the yoke of Bondage.”
God, therefore, by nature is the absolute other when compared to all the creatures. God is He who “saw all things before they were, holding them timelessly in His thoughts and each one conforming to His voluntary and timeless thought.” The doctrine of the creation of the world out of nothing safeguards the distinction, or what could be called the ontological gap between the Creator and creation who, though distinct from the world never ceases to care and provide for the world.
The last important truth which can be drawn from the reality that the world was created out of nothing is that God by His love for the whole world elevated the world from ontological mortality to charismatic immortality. The acceptance of the absolute created nature and non – self sufficiency of creation leads humanity to desire God, to be loved by God and to ultimately become god by grace. There is always to be a dependence of the whole created order upon God – the world is never to be considered as self – sufficient. God creates the world and continues to cares for it, and to sustain it by His Providence, otherwise the world would lapse into non – being. Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow writes that “all creatures are balanced upon the creative word of God, as if upon a bridge of diamond; above them is the abyss of divine infinitude and below them that of their own nothingness.” Therefore the gap between Creator and created can be reconciled.
The creation of humanity in the image and likeness of God
The creation of the world out of nothing is an economic manifestation of God as Trinity through which the world is freely brought into existence as a result of His ecstatic love. After having created the spiritual and material worlds, God last of all created humanity from non – being into being. From the written revelation of God, the Bible affirms that humanity has been created in the image and likeness of God. St Gregory the Theologian writes, concerning humanity:
“What is humanity that You are mindful of him? What is this new mystery which concerns man? I am small and great, lowly and exalted, mortal and immortal, earthly and heavenly. I share one condition with the lower world, the other with God.”
The fact that Adam and Eve were created by God last of all the other beings and in a different way – not just by the utterance of a divine word but by direct involvement and action of God – indicates not only humankind””s special relationship to God but the excellence and special position within the whole of creation. The image denotes the human person’s potentiality for life in God and likeness his/her destiny and realisation of that potentiality.
In the created world only a human being combines material and spiritual elements. Concerning humanity, it is not just one more of the creatures of the world but a creature who by the will of God is to be distinguished from all the others, in order to be an image of God within the world. Humanity is to be an immediate revelation, appearance and representation of God. Humanity is a microcosm, according to St Maximus the Confessor in that he sums up the elements of the whole world. Therefore humanity is given responsibility to be God’s representative – humanity is called to cooperate with God in being His steward and even ruler over creation. Human persons are called to care for the land, for animals and even for wild life – to have an immensely deeper than a mere, conventional and utilitarian relationship with the world. This is exemplified by the fact that Adam is called to name the animals. Adam and by extension all of humankind is called into a creative act in order to discover every creature in its particularity and uniqueness. Indeed the creation of the world out of nothing betrays God’s fingerprints everywhere and is therefore sacred and of invaluable value. This is exemplified in a simple poem with which we end:
The earth is crammed with heaven
And every common bust afire with God
But only that person who sees, takes off his shoes
The rest sit around it and pluck blueberries.
Since creation is itself alive with the dynamic power of God working in it, to delight in creation and to join in its praise of God, is not merely legitimate but also right. God’s creative act betrays such love that the entire world can live in hope that the destiny of creation will remain in God’s hands forever and for this reason all can give honour, praise and glory to God the Father of all good things, and to His Son, Jesus Christ through whom the world was created, and to the Holy Spirit who continues to give new life to the world until it final and ultimate fulfilment.
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
God – Creator of the Heavenly World
God is not only the Creator of the physical universe but also of the spiritual or invisible world. In addition to the visible world created by God, the Scriptures claim that God also created an invisible or heavenly world made up of ‘celestial and bodiless powers’ generally called angels. Even though this invisible created reality is not part of the physical or material universe, and therefore cannot be concretely located since it has no ‘geographical place’, yet it is no less real or truly existing than our world. The Orthodox Christian tradition would claim that the invisible world is made up of nine ranks of bodiless powers or hosts mediating God’s will on earth. These include the angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominions, thrones, cherubim and seraphim. From this we can see that strictly speaking angels are but one rank of the host of bodiless powers. The Scriptures offer the names of three angels: Michael , the leader of the people of Israel; Gabriel and Raphael of which the first two are referred to as archangels.
Regarding their beginning
There is no doubt in the Scriptures that God created these heavenly bodies just as He created the entire universe out of nothing. In wanting to stress the supremacy of Christ over the entire world to the Colossians, St Paul states clearly that:
“for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him” (Col 1:16).
The Scriptures however are not explicit in stating when they were brought into existence. For this reason the Patristic tradition offers various different interpretations. For example St Gregory the Theologian and St John of Damascus believe that the angelic world was created before the material world. They base such an assertion from the book of Job in the Old Testament, which describes a conversation of God with Job regarding the creation of the world:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?… who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (Job 38: 4; 6-7).
It is from this passage that certain fathers concluded that the angels preceded the creation of the visible world. Other fathers, such as the blessed Augustine contend that this invisible world was created during the creation of the first day when God created the heavens and the earth and said“let there be light!” and there was light. The reason for this is that angels are described in terms of light. What is important however is that the entire Patristic corpus would agree that the invisible world was created before humankind.
Regarding their nature
Angels are spirits; they are in fact called bodiless or immaterial when compared to human beings, although when compared to God this cannot be said. It is for this reason that that many fathers believe that ultimately nothing created can be without materiality or bodily form. They are creatures created out of nothing, just like the world, and out of God’s free will. Furthermore, God bestowed upon these bodiless hosts, His gifts of freedom, intelligence and immortality. Being bodiless there is no gender in angels nor do they need to multiply for survival since they are immortal. Their description in physical terms (six winged, many eyed) is purely anthropomorphic and must not be understood literally as they are spiritual beings.
Since they do not have a bodily shape and are not confined by materiality (such as doors or walls) they can move with ease from place to place; yet they are not unbounded or everywhere present. Regarding this point, St John of Damascus writes that “when they are in heaven they are not on earth: and whey are sent by God down to earth they do not remain in heaven.” This same father also points out that angels “are moved with difficulty towards evil but they can so be moved even though they are not.” What is meant by this phrase is that angels, being created as free beings remain steadfast in holiness not as a result of a natural quality innate within them but by God’s grace. Their knowledge and power are incomparably greater than humanity’s, yet again infinitely lacking when compared to God’s.
The task of the angels
There are at least four different tasks attributed in the Scriptures to angels. They include offering continuous thanks and glory to God; secondly acting as God’s messengers on earth; thirdly serving God by fulfilling His will on earth and in heaven; and lastly being assigned to each person as a guardian angel. A primary function of the bodiless powers is to offer continual adoration to God in offering Him praise, worship and thanksgiving for His great glory. This task of giving glory to God is beautifully described in the Divine Liturgy:
“We give thanks to you also for this liturgy which you are pleased to accept from our hand, though thousands of Archangels and myriads of Angels attend you, the Cherubim and the Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed soaring aloft on their wings.”
It is for this reason that the Orthodox Church teaches that the Divine Eucharist makes present in an anticipatory way the actual worship in front of God’s throne.
Regarding their second task, namely acting as messengers of God’s will, the best known example in the Scriptures is the joyous message brought by Gabriel of Christ’s birth to the Virgin Mary . Luke describes the angel Gabriel visiting the Virgin Mary saying:
“Rejoice, highly favoured one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women” (Lk 1:28).
This salutation clearly indicates the heralding function of angels who are sent to the world to announce the will of God. It is from this function of bringing the good tidings of God to the world that angels receive their name. The word “angel” comes from the Greek work angellos meaning messenger. Therefore angels are God’s messengers to the world.
The third general function of service is described in the letter to the Hebrews: “are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (Heb 1:13). From this passage we can see that angels mediate between God and the world bringing the power and presence of God into the world for its salvation. In the New Testament Scriptures they are depicted serving Christ during his life on earth particularly at his birth, during his temptation in the desert and at Gethsemane, in his resurrection and assumption. In the Old Testament they are portrayed not only protecting as in the case of the three children in the fiery furnace (cf Dan 3:25) but bringing the righteous to salvation. For example they provide for Elijah when he flees from Jezebel.:
“Then he [Elijah] lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat”. He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water.” (1Kings 19:5-6)
And in Luke’s gospel the joy of the angels when even one person is brought to salvation is clearly described:
“I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk 15:10).
From this we could say that angels, generally speaking are the servants of God’s divine providence in the world.
Regarding the fourth task of angels, the Orthodox Christian tradition also claims quite emphatically that, upon Baptism God assigns each person a guardian angel to guide and protect human beings throughout their life on earth. In the parable of the lost sheep Jesus urges the people not to despise the humble in heart for their guardian angel occupies a leading position before God.
“Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven” (Matt 18:10).
In the Divine Eucharist of St John Chrysostom the Orthodox faithful pray,
“for an angel of peace, a faithful guide, a guardian of our souls and bodies.”
The Orthodox Christian insistence that each person has a guardian angel is further exemplified in the book of Acts which states that the apostle Peter had an angel assigned to him. After Peter was released from prison he ran to the house of Mary, the mother of John and knocked at the door. Rhoda, the house-maid was so overjoyed that she ran into the house to announce that Peter was standing out at the gate. However she was not believed, since they knew that Peter was in prison and, thinking Rhoda was out of mind said to her: “it is his his angel” (Act 12:15). From this minor detail we can conclude that it was common amongst the early Christians to believe in the reality of angels and especially the existence of guardian angels.
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
On God and Evil Spirits
The teaching of the Christian Orthodox tradition is that God did not create evil spirits but rather evil originated in creatures due to their disobedience and alienation from God’s loving presence.
According to the Orthodox Christian tradition, apart from the good spiritual powers that do the will of God, there are the evil spirits which rebelled against God and continue to do evil. The Church claims however, that formerly they too were good angels, but subsequently fell from God’s presence due to their haughtiness and arrogance. The Scriptures claim that these evil spirits broke communion with God out of bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. This then gave way to, every manner of evil and, the refusal to give thanks and glory to God. This is an important point, since it affirms the Scriptural truth that everything that God created was inherently good. In fact the Scriptures claim that God created everything within the world for no other reason than for all creatures to enjoy, reflect and participate in God’s goodness. For this reason evil in general has no substantial existence since it is a perversion of goodness. Seen in this way, it must be admitted that the evil spirits were originally and essentially good. Therefore the teaching is that God did not create evil spirits but rather evil originated in creatures.
Like angels, these evil spirits are noetic beings or spirits. However, unlike angels they are evil and exist to darken the human mind so that it can stray from God. They detest what is good and their “serpentine wisdom” lead the human person to sin. These evil spirits are neither purely figments of the human imagination enlisted to act as human scapegoats nor are they purely psychological or subjective states of the human mind created by guilt incurred from human experiences. The Orthodox Church would claim that they are real forces which sow the seed of alienation from God within the human mind. Furthermore we would also claim that they cannot predict the future or know the consequences of their sowing; yet by virtue of the fact that they have acted on the human psyche since the beginning of the world’s creation they have learnt to discern certain patterns innate with the human being.
Led by their leader Satan these evil spirits believed that they could attain God-like blissfulness and joy in and of themselves without God. Since they strayed from God, they came to be called devils, because, as the word for devil in Greek (diabolos) suggests, they divide, slander, separate and destroy by lying. Their leader, Satan is also called Beelzebul , Beliar , Eosphoros the tempter and dragon . He now stands in opposition to God thereby preventing human beings from attaining communion with God as well. St Symeon the New Theologian stated clearly that devil and the evil spirits in general “continually stand against us, facing us, even if they cannot be seen by us.” Everything which causes division therefore is not of God but of the devil since God primarily is love attracting the entire world to this love.
In general terms the task of the evil spirits is to go against the will of God and to hinder the work of Christ’s salvation here on earth. They do this by tempting, provoking and occasioning humanity into spiritually perverted things by lying. In particular the devil as St Paul notes “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4) and continuously “prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (1Pt 5:8). In the parable of the Sower, Jesus says that the devil “comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved” (Lk 8:12). Moreover the devil, and by extension his evil spirits cause affliction and suffering in the lives of people – righteous people as well. This is clearly witnessed in the classic story of Job who suffered unjustly because he did not want to deny his own integrity or the integrity of God. These torments initiated by the evil spirits are carried out for no other reason than to destroy the world’s relationship with God in whom there is life in all abundance.
Why Evil Exists
In the Christian tradition it is said that God allows this and even wills evil for at least two reasons. Firstly this can test whether the human person really desires a life in God and secondly it can act as an opportunity chasten or discipline a person. However, what is clear in the Scriptures is that God never acts in this way to punish the world. The evil spirits incessantly try to destroy human beings by leading them away from God, not only“head-on” but also in subtle ways with deceit, hidden actions and above all lies. Jesus himself describes the devil in the following way:
“He [the devil] was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is not truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8: 44).
From the above words we can see that the chief work of the evil spirits is to fight against the truth of God’s saving action towards the world even bringing pain and suffering to people so as to test and allure them to do evil. In his message to the Church of Smyrna, St John the Evangelist writes:
“Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction” (Rev 2:10).
To those who are unjust, the devil not only encourages but also supports them to continue in their evil ways. It must be stated that God gives way or concedes to such trials brought on by the demons so that in being tested human persons may grow stronger against sin. In his letter to the Corinthians, St Paul states this explicitly:
“you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (I Cor 5:5).
Being removed from the joy of God’s presence, the human person may repent and in the end be saved.
Other times God does not simply give way, but actually actively allows and turns people over to the evil spirits. In St Paul’s letter to Timothy we read: “among them are Humenaeus and Alexander whom I have turned over to Satan, so that they may learn not to blaspheme.” (I Tim 1:20). On this difficult issue
St John of Damascus writes:
“Some of the things that are due to providence are by approval, whereas others are by permission… Thus, He often permits even the just man to meet with misfortunes so that the virtue hidden in him may be made known to others, as in the case of Job. At other times, He permits something iniquitous to be done so that through this apparently iniquitous action some great and excellent thing may be brought about, as was the salvation of men by the Cross. In still another way, He permits the devout man to suffer evil either so that he may not depart from his right conscience or so that he may not fall in presumption from the strength and grace that have been given him as in the case of St Paul .”
From the above it must be admitted that God does not permit suffering. It must be made clear that God does not will evil metaphysically, but does so providentially – that is for the ultimate salvation of the person concerned.
As to the second reason why evil exists, it must be said that God uses the horror and ugliness of evil for the ultimate glory and salvation of His creatures. Therefore the victorious ones are those who have overcome evil by good which inevitably means suffering and enduring the evils of this world. The Orthodox teaching is very clear in its teaching that since evil exists, God, anthropomorphically speaking “can do nothing about it” but use it for good – that is to discipline, cleanse, instruct and even transform evil for the salvation of His people. It can only be for this reason that the Orthodox Church, every years sings during Holy Week:
“Bring more evils upon them, Lord, bring more evils upon the glorious ones of the earth” (Isa 26:15 LXX)
God uses evil, in this case to the proud, so that He can chasten and ultimately save them. The ultimate example where God uses evil for God is seen in the crucifixion of Christ. It is for this reason that Hopko rightly stated that
“Jesus’ execution is the most magnificent and compelling example of God’s use of evil for good.”
Jesus endures the scandal and curse of the cross, becomes an innocent victim for the ultimate salvation of the world.
Fighting Evil with Good
The Scriptures urge us to be wary: “Discipline yourselves, be vigilant. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (1 Pt 5:8). St Paul also states:
“Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against he cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:11-13).
The saints of the Church knew of the great powers of the evil spirits; however they also knew that if they remained with God and were thus continually filled with the Holy Spirit then this would deprive Satan of his power. For this reason they continually urged Christians not only to struggle against the evil spirits but to actively initiative strategies to drive them away by doing good. St Symeon the New Theologian makes this point very clear:
“It is one thing to resist and fight one’s enemies and another thing to completely defeat and subdue them, putting them to death; for the first belongs to athletes and those brave in ascesis, but the second belongs rather to the dispassionate and perfect.”
The snares of the evil spirits are varied and manifold where they can even resort to doing good in order to beguile the human person. It is for this reason that St Paul warns his readers not to swayed from the teaching of Christ even from what appears to be angels since “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14). Their primary task is to divert the human person from looking towards God and this is carried out very discretely. And if they cannot persuade human persons to fall into sin then they try to have them pass judgement on others. The Patristic tradition is unanimous in its teaching regarding the importance of humility in disabling the power of the evil spirits. One should not try to fight them head-on but simply in all humility redirect all thoughts to the direction of good. The fathers would therefore say that we must try to transform any vice directing to a positive effect. For example sinful anger can be transformed into God-befitting anger against all that is evil.
Some concluding remarks
The Scriptures tell us clearly that the power of Satan will be destroyed at the Second Coming and Judgement of Christ where the demons will go to the eternal place of torment. The word for judgement in Greek krisis means separation. In accepting God’s redemption in Christ and living a life in Christ, human beings will be saved from the powers of evil. However those who do not repent but continue to do evil and stubbornly refuse God’s love will be enslaved to everlasting evil. Christ himself said:
“And this is my judgement, that the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (Jn 3:19-21).
However, the Christian Scriptures teach that at the end in God’s Kingdom evil will not be victorious. Rather the presence of God who is “all in all” will be eternal joy and bliss to the righteous and eternal torment and unhappiness to the wicked. One can also detect a positive view of demons within the Orthodox Patristic tradition. And so some fathers would claim without their constant temptation in life, they would not have occasioned a conscious and direct resolve for human persons to do good. Therefore Origen could state:
“Let us give thanks for the goods revealed to us through temptation.”
On this issue St Symeon the New Theologian would go so far as to say:
“Learn to love temptations as if they are to be the cause of all good in you.”
Clearly evil spirits can ultimately be seen as instruments used by God for the salvation of the world, ultimately being the cause of our victorious crowns and life in the Kingdom to come.
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
A Description of the Idiothtes (Properties) of God, Their Source and Their Theological Validity
God, in His very ‘nature’ is ineffable and inexpressible. God, ‘who has made darkness His secret place’ is beyond the finite conscience of persons. St Gregory Palamas writes that “the super essential nature of God is not a subject to speak of or think or even contemplate, for it is far removed from all that exists and more than unknowable – incomprehensible for ever.”1 However, God who is a hidden God also reveals Himself. Through His natural (ordinary) and supernatural (extraordinary) revelation, He has disclosed Himself to humanity in so far as humanity is capable of receiving this revelation.2 Therefore God is, at the same time totally inaccessible and really communicable to the created world. One is thus compelled to recognize in God an ineffable distinction-in-unity between His essence and His energies. The former refers to the nature of God, which is inaccessible, unknowable and incommunicable and the latter being the divine operations of God where God reveals and communicates Himself to creation. The energies of God make manifest to creatures those things that can be known of God. (τό γνωστόν τοῦ Θεοῦ).3
The so called ἰδιότητες 4 (features) of God are an attempt to describe in anthropomorphic terms the limitless ways that God relates to the world through His energies. The energies of God reveal the names of God – that is, that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, just and eternal. These are innumerable since God cannot be limited and bound by the ways that He wishes to relate to His created world. In its study, Systematic Theology has sought to classify the so called features of God in three areas – the attributa, (τά προσόντα) (attributes) the proprietates (τά ἰδιώματα) (hypostatic properties) and the praedicata (τά κατηγορήματα) (predicates).
The Features of God
The ‘ἰδιότητες’4 or features of God are the expressions of the relation that God has with the created world. Since God has made Himself known to us, humanity has dared to attempt to express the silence of God in poetry, doxology and liturgy. The Fathers of the Church attempted to penetrate the darkness of inaccessibility by the fingerprints that God revealed in His divine economy ad extra (towards the world). St Basil affirms that: “no one has ever seen the essence of God, but we believe in the essence because we experience the energy.“5 The economic manifestation of the Divine into the world allows for an expression of this relationship to be described. Eventhough it is imperative that the mystery of God be safeguarded nevertheless since He revealed Himself, this description is permissible and theologically valid.
When talking of the so called ἰδιότητες of God one has to keep in mind that one’s thought and conscience is conditioned by certain limits – that one has been placed on earth at a certain time and space – which cannot be overcome. One is not able to overcome this relativity – one only tries to formulate in one’s conscience those things pertaining to God in order to become familiar with the truth of the Trinitarian dogma. In their quest to arrange the features of God, theologians, especially in the West, began to logically define which of the features were primary, secondary or original and derived. In their attempt to construct a system, the Scholastics posited two ways in which to determine the features of God – the via causalitatis and via negationis. By the way of causality humanity, having experienced perfection relatively by perceiving the created world around, would ascribe to God the highest degree of perfection. By the way of negation all the imperfections seen by humanity would be removed from the idea of God, being inconsistent with the idea of a perfect being. According to that principle, God was assigned qualities such as being infinite, immortal and incomprehensible. However these theologians wanted the most basic, the most substantial and the most original concept for God upon which the other features depended.
Some wanted the begin with the idea of God as being love, others that He was primarily a personal being while others still stressed absoluteness to be the source. However these attempts, in isolation from one another were not able to offer every possible relation of God as described in the Bible and in the language of Revelation. Since God’s relationship with the created world is limitless, therefore so will the features be limitless and not one alone can become adequate to express all others. Therefore the only possibility to approach the features of God is to accept the classification as a conventional solution and that none of the three attributes can be accepted as the source from which all the others are derived.
Three Types of Features
Systematic Theology has employed three terms in its search to classify the features of God – the first being the attributes. The (προσόντα) attributa are those qualities of God that the Bible describes – that is that God is holy, just, and a eternal for example. These attributes of God have been divided into natural, logical and ethical attributes. Under the natural attributes three things are implied: that He is ever – present, eternal and almighty. Under the logical attributes, all – knowledge and all- wisdom. Under the ethical attributes, holiness, righteousness and love. All the three are interrelated and arise since the finite being of humanity is not able to grasp the substance of God as a unique oneness. It follows therefore that the classification is conventional.
The natural attributes derive from the natural characteristic that God is absolute. They are ascribed to God from humanity’s conception of the creation with God being beyond time and space therefore timeless, infinite and independent. The central focus for the logical and the ethical is the characteristic that God is a personal being. Furthermore the ethical attributes give witness to the order and harmony of the moral life of humanity, both in strengthening the ethical values in life and in love as the compassion and mercy of God.
Secondly, the term (ἰδιώματα) proprietates, is employed when describing the ιδιοτητες of God, to underline the distinction of the three persons – the threefold differentiation in God’s outward inner life6. Thus the three persons are distinct from one another, yet united each possessing the fullness of the Divinity. Thus according to St Gregory the Theologian, “the Godhead is undivided in separate Persons.”7 The Father is to be distinguished from the other Persons inasmuch as He eternally begets the Son and emanates the Holy Spirit; the Son is to be distinguished in that He is begotten of the Father; and the Holy Spirit in that He proceeds from the Father. Thus, the hypostatic attributes of the Three Persons are as follows: the Father – His unbegotteness (ἀγέννητον) and paternity; the Son – begotteness (γεννητόν) and sonship; and the Holy Spirit – procession (ἐκπορευτόν) or “ekpempsis“. St Gregory the Theologian affirms that the “characteristics of the Father is His unbegetteness, of the Son, His birth and of the Holy Spirit His procession.”8
The (κατηγορήματα) praedicata are those features which „characterize‟ God as subject operating (ἐνεργοῦντα) in concrete situations. It follows from this classification that God is called upon as creator, judge and life – giver.
The Relation with the Essence of God
The question arises, after having described the different ἰδιότητες as to the nature of the features, their relationship with the essence of God and to what extent they adequately describe the essence of God. Consequently, the problem arises as to the validity of the features of God. Two extremes arose in the quest for an answer to this dilemma. Some theologians, wanting to safeguard a homogenous relationship of the features of God with their expression to the created world, affirmed that the features reflected the inner essence of God and that they were real distinctions in the essence of God. Others, stressing the simplicity and incomprehensibility of the essence of God believed that the features of God were objective and irrespective of His relation to the world (Nominalism).
However both these positions held are false and ultimately lead to heresy. The acceptance that God’s essence is composite – made up of many ‘compartments’ – clearly differs from the essential and foundation truth that the essence of God is simple. St Athanasius asserts that “οὐκ ἐστίν ποιότης ἐν τῷ Θεῷ. Ἀπλή γάρ ἡ οὐσία τοῦ Θεοῦ.”9 However the other assertion that the qualities of God are theoretical imaginations – only fictitious – is non – Biblical and non – Patristic and ultimately leads to the heresy of Docetism. If the ascribed qualities of God are only theoretical and metaphorical then the meaning of Revelation becomes corrupt, the religious feeling is minimalised and faith is deprived of all truth.10
These features ascribed to God are neither theoretical nor objective. Instead, they are concrete realities not in the essence of God but outside. St Basil expressed that “we know God from His energies, and not from our relationship to His essence. For God’s energies descend upon us, but His essence remains unapproachable.”11 The features of God are not distinctions in the simple essence of God but they express the relationships of the simple essence of God to the diverse and various created world. The truth is approached when one accepts the middle path to both extremes. That is, that the ἰδιότητες of God do correspond to the essence of God but do not comprise of separate compartments in His essence.12
From the above, it is clear that the features of God are expressions of His relation to the created world through His energies. An attempt has been made by theologians in the past to classify these qualities in order that the mysterium tremendum might somehow be approached. The calling of the theologian today is to use these various qualities which have been described and classified, with caution in order to persuade the whole created world – those outside of Christianity – into the experience of the new joy of the life in Christ Jesus ; to proclaim this to all for the glory of the living God and the salvation of the world (mysterium salvificum).
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. ‘Theophanies’ P.G., 150, 937 A.
2. According to Irenaeus, “No man is capable of knowing God, unless he be taught by God; that is God cannot be known without God: But that it is the expressed will of the Father, that God should be known. Adv. Haer. IV, 6, 4. P.G. 36.364.
3. cf. Rom. 1. 19.
4. The term ἰδιότητες which Systematic Theology has employed in the texts is not a successful term. The term ἰδιότητες is derived from the Greek word ἴδιον which translates as ‘my own.’ However everything belongs to God – one cannot affirm that only certain things in the created world are His and not others. In the Divine Liturgy we read “τά Σά ἐκ τῶν Σῶν, σοί προσφέρομεν” There are no private qualities of God. A more successful term, rather than ἰδιότητες, would be γνωρίσματα of God since it is from these that we recognize that God is in our midst. (The term γνωρίσματα was first suggested by Archbishop Stylianos in his lectures in Dogmatic Theology). This paper will therefore use the word ‘features’ to designate the Greek term ‘τά γνωρίσματα’.
5. Kallistos Ware,The Orthodox Way, 27
6. The term ‘ἰδιότητες‘ is applicable when one speaks of the proprietates since we are stating the unique ‘quality’ and the economy ad extra of each Person of the Trinity.
7. St Gegeoy the Thelogian, Sermon 31, 14. P.G. 36, 149.
8. Oration 25, 16 P.G. 31, 609.
9. Letter to the African Bishops, 8. P.G. 26. 1043.
10. cf. C. Androutsos, DOGMATIKH THS ORTHODOXOU ANATOLIKHS EKKLHSIAS, 43.
11. Epistle 234,2.
12. Archbishop Stylianos, Lectures delivered to students of Systematic Theology at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
The Characteristic Features (Γνωρίσματα) or Attributes of God
God, in His very essence is beyond all understanding, inexpressible, uncreated, uncircumscribed, unfathomable and unchangeable – to name only several of the many divine features ascribed to God by the fathers.1 The uncreated essence of God is ‘entirely other’ from all other created ‘natures’ in that in that it is not partial or incomplete like everything else in the created world. Only God, for example, is a ‘being’ that exists eternally, is uncreated and in fact is the absolute fullness of being and life. Yet God who is beyond all categories of being and existence has made Himself really known throughout the ages as the ‘I am who I am’ who lives, who has spoken and acted in the world, and continues to do so. God has totally disclosed Himself in a personal way to the world through His ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ revelation. For this reason, Orthodox theology recognises in God an ineffable distinction-in-unity between His essence, which will forever remain unknown and His energies, through which God personally reveals Himself to the created realm.
With such a distinction in mind, Christian theology has sought to depict the limitless ways that God communicates with the created world by the expression ‘divine attributes’. That is to say, the theological notion, ‘attributes of God’ has traditionally been used by Christian theology to depict those characteristic features or divine qualities of God, which the human person has experienced and expressed resulting from the inexhaustible ways that God continues to relate to the world personally through His energies. The reason that God’s attributes are innumerable is that God cannot be limited and bound by the infinite ways that He might wish to relate to the created world. It must be stressed that in no way do the ‘attributes of God’ indicate the essence of God but rather, they refer to God’s relationship towards the world and in particular to human beings. That is, the attributes of God, in Orthodox theology can be identified with the uncreated energies of God.
Now, systematic theology has sought to classify these qualities of God in terms of attributes (attributa), such as omnipresence, eternity, omnipotence, omniscience, holiness and righteousness; secondly there are those qualities which underline the unique characteristics of each Person within the life of the Holy Trinity. The Father alone, for example is said to be unbegotten (ἀγέννητος) while the Son is ‘begotten of the Father before all ages’ (γεννητός) as is recited in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed; and the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father (ἐκπορευτόν). These hypostatic attributes are designated by the term properties (ἰδιώματα-proprietates). The third classification signifies those qualities of God which characterise Him as a Subject operating in concrete situations, these being called κατηγορήματα (praedicata). It follows from such a categorization that God is experienced to be Creator, Judge and Life-Giver. Even though it is imperative to be mindful of the ‘divine simplicity’ of God, a description of the various attributes is permissible and theologically valid as a means for the human person to be initiated into the unfathomable mystery of God. Our attention in this article will be turned specifically towards the attributes of God which have been conventionally divided into natural, logical and ethical attributes.
The Natural Attributes
By the attribute of omnipresence, God is acknowledged as being everywhere present. In the prayer ‘Heavenly King Comforter…[Βασιλεῦ Οὐράνιε Παράκλητε…]’ the Church claims that God is ‘present everywhere and filling all things’. By omnipresence is also meant that God cannot be confined by the limitations of time or space as all created beings are. Such an understanding of God’s omnipresence is witnessed in many Scriptural passages – Psalm 138 being very familiar to all:
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Ps 139:7-10).
Clearly this passage shows that God does not act in the world from a distance (actio in distans) but has continual and constant koinonia with the world. And so, there is no part of creation from where God is absent.
Being a spiritual and immaterial ‘being’ God is not limited by any spacial considerations as all created beings are. In His answer to the Samaritan woman, Jesus said that: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:24). That is, being spirit, God is not bound by materiality so as to be confined by concrete space. According to the prophet Jeremiah with regards to God’s omnipresence, we read:
Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord. (Jer 23:23-24).
Therefore any theory which would put God outside the cosmos is not espoused by Orthodox theology. Consequently, in an manner which transcends human understanding, God is totally and really present simultaneously in all places at the same time as is expressed by St John Chrsysostom: “You fill all things, o my God. You are everywhere present, not in part, but totally in all.”2 Finally, in agreement with Nietzsche on this issue, the Church too would claim that “God is found everywhere and always, and we can never escape His presence.”3
The eternal quality of God basically denotes the fact that God cannot be confined by any temporal categories since He has no beginning (ἀΐδιος) or no end (ἀτελεύτητος). Everywhere in the Bible God is described as “the eternal God” (Gen 21:33); “the one who inhabits eternity” (Isa 57:13); “from eternity to eternity you are God” (Ps 90:2); “the eternal king” (1Tim 1:17); “the alpha and omega” (Rev 1:8). Just as He is beyond space but still everywhere present, so too is He beyond time yet still present in every instant of it. And so, Christian theology would claim that God is included in time without being part of it. According to Androutsos, time is the moving of things which have a concrete beginning and an end.4 However, God is eternal not only because He is without beginning and without end, but also since He is present in every temporal movement in such a way that all things are continually present for God. Time in relation to eternity is an instant in which there is no transition from present to past, or future to present. Indeed for God, as is seen in St Peter’s second general letter: “one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Pt 3:8). From this it follows that there can be no temporal considerations which could speak of a tomorrow, past or future in relation to God.
In considering the eternal quality of God, some fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria and St Gregory of Nyssa understood by this that God could not be subject to any temporal succession since in God three is neither a predecessor nor any successor. Therefore God’s eternity expresses the fact that in God there is no beginning, no end and therefore no succession or change in His being. In the book of Revelation, God is depicted as the one “who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev 1:4). The book of Hebrews expresses this explicitly when it writes that Christ is “the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb 13:8). In describing God’s unwavering and immutable nature, the blessed Augustine used the image of tree on the edge of a flowing river to illustrate the relation of God’s unchanging and eternal character independent of the flow of things in time.5
Accordingly, the eternity of God is ultimately founded on the immutable (i.e. changeless – ἀναλλοίωτος) nature of God. That is, there can be no variation in His essence because unlike all created matter which grows and changes, God does not. God is simply abiding existence, complete all at once. Indeed, even though it may seem that God changes as He acts in the world, this however does not introduce any change in God’s essence since it only appears to us that God has changed. For example, one of the physical characteristics of light is that it is constant; yet to some who enjoy its presence it appears as a welcoming phenomenon yet to others who abhor it, it appears inimical. And so, the eternal quality of God ultimately indicates what Deuteronomy says of God: “For I lift up my hand to heaven, and swear: As I live forever” (Deut 32:40).
Omnipotence is the attribute which describes God’s divine greatness and inestimable power. God’s divine and almighty power is attested throughout the entire Scriptures: “Our God is in the heavens; he had done whatsoever he has pleased” (Ps 115:3); “holy Lord God almighty” (Rev 4:8); “I am the almighty God” (Gen 17:1); “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made. He commanded and it stood fast” (Ps 33:6). Also after Jesus had spoken about riches and salvation, the disciples asked him, “who then can be saved?” to which Jesus replied: “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26). Clearly the Bible makes it clear that God can do all things, not being dependent on any power outside of Himself since His power is infinite. God’s omnipotence is primarily witnessed in the creation of the world out of nothing and in His continual involvement in the world by personally providing, preserving, maintaining, governing and caring for it. A most familiar verse from Psalm 77 makes this point clearly: “What god is so great as our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples” (Ps 77:13-14). It is precisely for this reason – that is, God’s greateness – that theology ascribes to God the attribute of omnipotence. Orthodox theology also claims that God’s omnipotence is intimately related to His divine will. Consequently, this means that God does not do all that He can, but only whatever He wills. In this regard the classic phrase from St
John of Damascus is pertinent:
God does what He desires, but does not desire all that He can do; He can destroy the world, but does not want to.6
This statement indicates that God’s power is not exercised apart from His will. Being personal, God does not exercise His power mechanically as if it were a blind force. That is to say, God will not do anything, which is inconsistent with His divine essence. For example, God will not lie as this is attested in Heb 6:18: “it is impossible that God would prove false”; nor can He be deceived (cf Job 13:9) or die (cf 1Tim
6:16). Far from being seen as a weakness, this aspect of God’s almighty power is its greatest accomplishment.
In reflecting upon this a little further, it also has to be noted that God will not do something which may imply a logical impossibility – it would be absurd to ask if God could create a ‘square triangle’ or a ‘circle with corners’. Since such absurdities involve a logical impossibility they are therefore in reality nonentities and consequently they do not constitute any limitation or denial of power on the part of God. In the words of Theodoret:
To be unable to do something of this sort (for the eternal to come into being at a certain time, the uncreated to become created, the infinite to become finite) is not a mark of weakness, but of infinite power.7
Since God’s will is not arbitrary, God does not set out to do anything which is contrary to His nature. He could, for example, destroy the earth, but does not will to do so. From this, we see that the assimilation of God’s divine power with His will, was for Theodoret not a sign of weakness, but precisely a sign of God’s infinite power.
In the next issue of the Voice we continue with the logical and ethical attributes of God.
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. Cf for example, St John of Damascus, Orthodox Faith, 1.3.
2. Homily on the Psalms, 138, 2. PG 55, 413.
3. Nietzsche, Lehrbuch der Evangelischen Dogmatik, 393 cited in C. Androutsos, Dogmatics of the Eastern Orthodox Church, 55.
4. Cf Androutsos, Dogmatics, 56.
5. De Vera Religione, 49 and Confessions 11.16.
6. Orthodox Faith, 1,14. PG 94, 860D-861A.
7. Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Eran. Dial., 3. PG 83, 232.S
The Characteristic Features (Γνωρίσματα) or Attributes of God
In the previous article the natural attributes of God were examined. Our attention is now turned to the logical features of God. Logical Attributes Omniscience Omniscience is that divine attribute which affirms that God is all-knowing – indeed the Church proclaims that God knows everything immediately and perfectly; knows all things everywhere and at all times and under all possible contingencies. Therefore, God’s knowledge is not progressive since He knows eternally and instantaneously. In addition, God’s all-knowledge includes not only absolute knowledge of His divine Self ( cf 1Cor 2:111) but knowledge of the world and everything within it. Furthermore, theology claims that God does not simply know all things, which have already taken place or are in the process of taking place, but also of future events as well. As a ‘personal’ being, God is absolutely free, possesses absolute responsibility, and as such is all-knowing. With regards to God’s omniscience the New Testament unequivocally states that: “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1Jn 3:20).
Furthermore, in St John’s gospel we read that when Jesus had asked Peter if he loved Him a third time, Peter responded: “Lord, you know everything” (Jn 21:17). The above verse alone indicates unambiguously God’s omniscience. God’s all-knowing attribute is testified to throughout the Scriptures. Accordingly, the book of Job tells us that the Lord: “looks to the ends of the earth, and sees everything under the heavens” (Job 28:24); and Psalm 94 affirms that, “the Lord knows our thoughts” (Ps 94:11). Finally, another passage from the Psalms, which is pertinent with regards to God’s omniscience is the following:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. (Ps 139:1-6)
This shows clearly God’s absolute and incomprehensible wisdom and knowledge of the entire created world; indeed, a knowledge which cannot be compared with that of a human person’s limited and created ‘intelligence’. Consequently this also underscores the fact that nothing that happens can be considered fortuitous, coincidental or even accidental. The fact that God has known all things from the beginning of time could justifiably gives rise to the following question: “if God’s knowledge is absolute – since all is known in God in one simultaneous intuition – does this not necessarily interfere with the freedom and responsibility of the human person?” That is to say, at first glance, would it not seem contradictory to affirm a human person’s freedom on the one hand, and then say that God knows what that person would do anyway? Ostensibly one could quote the following verse as evidence of this quandary:
“For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him” (Jn 6:64).2
If misunderstood, one could draw the conclusion from this verse that people lack freedom and that their ‘fate’ is predetermined. Indeed, in the history of theology, two schools of thought developed with respect to God’s omniscience and human freedom. Whilst the first sought to limit God’s knowledge in arguing that God did not know those things pertaining to a person’s free will, the second would sacrifice the human will, believing it to be apparent but not real, and argued that all things happen out of necessity. To this latter school belong those who have espoused the theory of predestination. In answer to this dilemma, the Orthodox Church has always made a distinction between foreknowledge and predestination because God’s foreknowledge, as St John of Damascus stated, is not the cause of a human person’s actions: God’s foreknowledge… is not the cause of the occurrence of things, but rather He foreknows that we are to do this or that… thus, that which we are to do, does not have God as its cause, but rather our own free will.3
And so, regarding the foreknowledge of God, the Orthodox Church claims that this in no way limits the freedom of the human person, nor does it influence that person’s decisions. An image often used by the Patristic tradition to explain this predicament is that of a diagnosis given by a doctor. Just as a doctor, who knows that a person will die as a result of a certain illness, is not the cause of that person’s death, so too, God’s foreknowledge is not the cause of a person’s actions or ‘fate’. This shows that a human person’s actions, even though relatively free with respect to God, are nonetheless real and not predetermined. Consequently, the Orthodox Church would state that God knows all things that are going to happen, seeing all events as one continuous present for God, without such knowledge in any way exercising any influence upon them. In this way, God’s absolute omniscience is safeguarded and the free will of the human person not undermined.
God’s all-wisdom refers to that divine attribute by which God determines the most perfect and excellent means for the best end result. In his letter to the Romans, St Paul stated that: “all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28). Clearly, for St Paul, all things, which take place in the world, presuppose God’s all-wisdom. That God is indeed all-wise is testified throughout the Scriptures where He is depicted as the source and giver of wisdom to the world and especially to humankind, the crown of His creation. Furthermore, the all-wisdom of God is especially revealed in the process of salvation, which God initiated from the beginning of time and fulfilled in Jesus Christ and His Church. In his letter to the Ephesians, St Paul emphasised that united ‘in Christ’, the Church could now make known the far-reaching wisdom of God to all within the world, and even to the angelic realm: so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Eph 3:10).
From the above significant verse, we see that Christ’s life on earth together with His crucifixion, resurrection and ascension brought about such an intimate koinonia between the heavenly and created realms that it not only resulted in the reconciliation between God’s heavenly kingdom and the world, but also gave human beings an insight into God’s ineffable wisdom.4 Regarding God’s all-wisdom in the Old Testament, the book of Proverbs, for example, notes the following: “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens” (Prov 3:19). Also the Psalmist, in wonder and amazement at God’s all-wisdom, which he discerned in the world around, proclaimed: “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Ps 104:24). In the New Testament, the ineffable depths of God’s all-wisdom is simply praised and wondered at by St Paul since no words could ever contain or exhaust its wonders: O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?” “Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?” (Rom 11:33-35).
Elsewhere, the infinite superiority of God’s wisdom was further emphasised by St Paul who, in writing to the Corinthian community, would note that the ‘foolishness of God’ – that is, the lowest degree of divine wisdom – is wiser than human wisdom (cf 1Cor 1:25). In reflecting upon the all-wisdom of God in the fourth century, St Gregory the Theologian, in his Second Theological Oration, asked a series of beautifully phrased questions covering all aspects of creation (the animal kingdom, fish, birds, plants, the seas and the heavens above) in order to lead his listeners to a sense of wonder at the magnificence of God’s all-wisdom. In this ‘poem on creation’, as it came to be known, St Gregory’s point was simply to highlight that if the human mind could not comprehend the wisdom with which every visible creature was created and functioned, how could it ever expect to possess an insight into the unfathomable depths of God’s all-wisdom.
For this reason, he concluded that, all human beings could do was simply to enjoy the created order and give praise and glory to God for His all-wisdom. Even a small excerpt from his long yet important Oration will serve to highlight his point regarding God’s all-wisdom which human beings can behold in God’s creation: “In what way is mind conveyed and communicated by speech? How does speech go through the air and enter along with objects?… There are still questions more basic than these. … What makes food nourishment for the body and speech for the soul?… There are many facts about speech and hearing, how sounds are produced through the vocal organs and received by the ears, how sounds and ears are knit together by the imprinted impulse transmitted by the intervening air? There are many facts about sight and its mysterious communion with objects… Sight is in the same case with mind, for it joins its objects with just the same speed as does the mind its thoughts…Would you like me to enumerate the points at which animals differ from us and from one another, differences in natural constitution, production, diet, differences in habitat, behaviour and social structure, so to say? What makes some animals gregarious, others solitary? Some eat grass, others are carnivorous? Some are fierce, others are gentle?… Look at the fish. They glide through the water, flying you might say, under the liquid element…. Who puts a sounding-board in the cicada’s chest with the chirping songs it makes in the branches?… Turn you attention to the different kinds of plants, to the artistry displayed in their foliage affording at once the maximum pleasure to the eyes… consider too the lavish abundance of fruits, the special beauty of the particularly important kinds. Examine the potentialities the juices of their roots and the scents their flowers have, not just the pleasant but the medically useful ones too…..”
Like St Gregory, many fathers of the Church attributed the entire created order as a testimony to the greatness of God’s wisdom and knowledge. Indeed, they saw the entire world continuously directed by God towards a single aim – the perfection and transfiguration of the world so that all may share in God’s eternal beatitude.
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. 1Cor 2:11: “For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God.”
2. The Orthodox Church would explain this passage by stating that God could indeed act in such a way as to change a certain person’s path, since God is almighty, but chooses not to, so as not to interfere with a person’s freedom. In this way God’s omniscience is affirmed yet the human person’s freedom is not undermined.
3. St John of Damascus, Dialogue against the Manichaens, 79. PG 94, 1577.
4. Cf this also with St Paul’s letter to the Romans which states clearly that: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (Rom 1:19)
The Characteristic Features (Γνωρίσματα) or Attributes of God
Having examined the natural and logical attributes of God in the previous issues of the Voice of Orthodoxy, this article looks at the third group, the so-called ethical attributes which are said to ‘characterise’ God – that is, His holiness, righteous and love.
If the natural features of God betray His almighty power, and if the logical ones manifest His knowledge and wisdom, then the ethical attributes are said to reveal God’s ultimate perfection. In addition they indicate the order and harmony of the Christian life by providing the ethical norms by which each person can live. Now, with regards to God’s ethical attributes of holiness and righteousness, Christian theology claims that, in God these are to be understood in an absolute sense – that is, God is all-holy and all-righteous. Being holy [etymologically the term connotes absolute separation from the world1], God stands entirely outside anything imperfect, unclean and sinful. On the contrary God is always totally identified with goodness and love. In this way, God’s divine will is in absolute harmony with His divine essence. St Cyril of Alexandria wrote: “He is holy by nature, in contrast to human persons, who are not holy by nature, but by participation, struggle and prayer.”2 God’s righteousness, on the other hand, refers to the way that God enacts His holiness in the world and hence is an expression and necessary element of His holiness. That is to say, that in no way could God ever tolerate evil or injustice.
God’s holiness is expressed throughout the entire Scriptures:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (Is 6:3); “For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Is 57:15); “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendour, doing wonders?” (Ex 15:11) and “Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness (Ps 89:35).
From this we see that God’s holiness cannot be conceived in all its depth and richness for it will forever transcend any human notions of holiness. And yet, the Levitical law admonished the Israelites to seek this divine attribute: “I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:45). This illustrates that only God is holy – this is expressed well in the divine Liturgy just before Holy Communion, “one is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ” – and that human persons could never achieve holiness without the grace of God who calls His people to be holy.
In the New Testament, God’s holiness is also emphasised. Jesus Christ called His Father holy when He was praying for the unity of the faithful: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (Jn 17:11). Several verses later, Christ also prayed that God may “sanctify them [the apostles] in the truth” (Jn 17:17), in this way setting them apart from the world so that they could share in, and continue Christ’s sacred ministry to the world. Consequently, the Lord is called holy not only because He is separated from all evil, but also because He is essentially holy and His will is totally identified towards doing good, and being holy, in this way giving the world an example to follow. That is to say, God wills nothing else except holiness and goodness. It naturally follows from this that God cannot be attributed with the any form of evil, which exists in the world. This is clearly stated in the general epistle of James: “No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one” (Jas 1:13). This again demonstrates that God cannot but will that which is inherently holy and good.
Being holy, God is also totally righteous within Himself and in His relationship towards the world. If by the attribute of holiness God was shown to be absolute goodness, by His righteousness God actively upholds and administers His goodness to the world. As such, the attribute of righteousness expresses the manifestation of God’s holiness towards His creatures. In reflecting upon God’s relationship with the world, the Psalmist wrote: “The Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face” (Ps 11:7). Being righteous and therefore creating laws and bestowing His grace upon all, the Lord revealed His precepts for the world to follow. And in His dealings with the world, God has always acted righteously: “The Lord is just in all his ways and kind in all his doings” (145:17); “He judges the world with righteousness; he judges the people with equity” (Ps 9:8). Consequently, the righteousness of God does not only include the fact that He is a righteous lawgiver but also that He is a righteous judge.
God’s righteousness will particularly be revealed in the last days during which the Son of Man will come in glory to “reward (ἀποδώσει) everyone for what has been done” (Mt 16:27). From this we can see that God’s righteousness ultimately expresses His desire to make the entire world “participants of the divine nature” (2Pt 1:4). Besides, the very reason for the Church’s existence is to bestow, here and now, a foretaste of the definitive gift of God’s intimate koinonia in His eschatological kingdom. For this reason the Church has rightly been described as a graced communion for the salvation of the world and the glorification of God.3 In his letter to Timothy St Paul expressed his deep longing for the ‘crown of righteousness’ to be bestowed upon him by the ‘righteous judge’ in the age to come:
From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2Tim 4:8).
Far from perceiving God’s righteousness in terms of punishment, St Paul eagerly awaited God’s righteous judgement since He saw this as an expression par excellence of God’s love upon him and upon all those who longed for God and His righteousness. Elsewhere in the New Testament God is said to be “the almighty” whose “judgements are true and just” (Rev 16:7). Such an understanding was totally in line with Jesus who said: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled” (Mt 5:6; cf Mt 6:33). Consequently, we see that the attribute of God’s righteousness is closely related to God’s overflowing grace and active love and must therefore not be understood in punitive terms.
Now, regarding God’s righteousness, it has to be stated that God does not punish transgressors and recompense the obedient. From all the above, it would be more faithful to the Scriptures to affirm that whilst the unrighteous perceive God’s righteous actions in terms of punishment, the faithful understand these as acts of love and mercy for the ultimate salvation of the world. That is to say, God’s righteousness, which is “all in all” is joy and bliss to the righteous and torment and unhappiness to the wicked. In the age to come, it will not be the case that God will forever punish the wicked; rather His same presence will bring refreshment on those who love the Lord and torment to those who persist in evil. It is only in this way that St Paul’s teaching found in 2 Thess 1:9 – “they shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction from the presence (or face) of the Lord” – can be reconciled with God’s righteousness and absolute goodness.
In addition, the Orthodox teaching is very clear in its teaching that even though unrighteousness exists in the world today, God, anthropomorphically speaking “can do nothing about it” but instead uses it for good – that is to discipline, cleanse, instruct and even transform unrighteousness for the deliverance of His people. As such, God is evermore present in such instances working for the salvation of the world. Psalm 34 makes this point very strongly:
The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry. The face of the Lord is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth. When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and rescues them from all their troubles. The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit (Ps 34:15-18).
Far from being seen as a form of castigation, God’s righteousness is the greatest expression of God’s presence and love. It is in this regard that St Paul was able to say that the, “law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 5:20-21).
The crown of all God’s attributes is His love. Love is that divine attribute by which God moves outside of His inner life in order to bestow His goodness, grace and compassion upon the world and especially upon human persons making them, in this way, partakers of His beatitude. Since God is absolute love and absolute goodness He wishes to share freely all that He is and has with the world for no other reason than to promote the wellbeing and happiness of the created realm. However, God is not love only in His relation to the world but is eternally that way, even before the world was created. The inner life of the Godhead is love since the three Persons continually dwell in one another in a movement of reciprocating love – the term used in theology to depict this movement of love is ‘perichoresis’. It is precisely for this reason that St John the Evangelist said that “God is love” (1Jn 4:8). Accordingly, it becomes clear that the quality of love is so significant that all other attributes are bound together and summed up in this attribute. In addition, the Scriptures make it clear that only in loving can human beings come to know and experience God:
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1Jn 4:16).
The references in the Scriptures regarding God’s love are too numerous to enumerate at this point since God’s loving actions towards the world are infinite. However certain passages can be highlighted from both the Old and New Testaments which make God’s love clear. The Wisdom of Solomon for example, highlighted God’s love for the world when it wrote: “for you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it” (Wis 11:24). In sharing by grace all that God is by nature, He could not possibly impart upon the world anything but goodness, affection and benevolence. God’s love extends to a) the animal and plant kingdoms: “You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing” (Ps 145:16); “The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God” (Ps 104:21); b) to all people without bias: “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous”(Mt 5:45) and “yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17). Upon this standard, God’s love towards His creatures is without measure.
God’s ultimate expression of love was demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ and the divine provision for the world’s salvation. The Gospel according to St John made this point clearly:
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life(Jn 3:16).
Not only did God bring the world and the human person into existence from non-being (cf 2 Macc 7:28) but, also in the fullness of time, willed that the human person be incorporated into the body of Christ – through Christ’s incarnation – in this way giving the human person the ability of becoming god-like (cf 2 Pt 1:14). In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the human person’s calling to ‘deification’ betrays nothing other than the intense love of God to share everything He is by nature, by grace with the entire created cosmos. Accordingly, for many fathers, God’s descent out of love, especially in the Incarnation and kenosis of the only-begotten Son of God offered the created order the capability of ascending towards the divine by the power of the Holy Spirit. In this way, God’s ineffable love opened up the way for human nature to participate in the eternal and divine life of God. It is precisely for this reason that many fathers interpreted the Incarnation of the Logos not as a simply consequence of the fall, but as the fulfilment of the original loving will of God.
From the above, we have seen that the attributes of God are expressions of His relationship with the created world through His energies. Even though an attempt has been made by ‘theologians’ throughout the centuries to classify and distinguish these qualities in order that the tremendous mystery (mysterium tremendum) might somehow be approached, God’s essence remains simple and therefore cannot ultimately be divided into different attributes. Ultimately God transcends all human comprehension. Nevertheless, in establishing a relationship with the created world, which He created out of nothing (ex nihilo), God did give human persons the ability to express their relationship with Him. It is for this reason that the attributes ascribed to God are never exhaustive of His inner being, but are nevertheless real in so far as they remain true signs of His personal presence among the world through His energies.
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. Perhaps the word ‘holiday’ originated from the term holy in so far as it originally would have implied a day which was to be separated from all other days. In the Old Testament the temple was referred to as holy since it was entirely separated from the world. In addition, the people of Israel were referred to as holy in the Old Testament because God set them apart from the rest of the nations.
2. St Cyril of Alexandria, Mystical Catechism, 5,19. PG 33, 1124.
3. Archbishop Stylianos, Lectures delivered in Ecclesiology at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, 2005.
Visions of the Invisible (Part I)
A basic tenet of the Christian faith claims that God is not only ‘invisible’ but also “impalpable, uncircumscribed, incomprehensible and unfathomable.”1 Many Biblical texts explicitly state that no human person will ever be able to behold the face of God and survive. For this reason the Old Testament, for example describes Moses on the cloud covered mountaintop only able to see the ‘back’ of God but not His face (Ex 33:23)2. Many New Testament texts refer also to the unknowability and invisibility of God. In the Gospel of St John, for example we read that “no man has seen God at any time” (1Jn 4:12) and the Pastoral epistles speak of God as “dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man has seen or can see” (1Tim.6:16). And yet there are many other texts within the Scriptures, especially the descriptions of the prophetic visions found in the Old Testament, which refer to the possibility of “seeing” God and participating in his very life. In this New Testament Jesus Christ Himself is depicted as saying: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Mt 5:8).
At first we could quite justifiably conclude that, within the Scriptures there seems to be a basic paradox between God who is depicted both as hidden, and yet, at the same time revealed; God invisible and yet, simultaneously visible. Even though the Scriptures state that God has indeed revealed himself fully in His Son, Jesus Christ, the Word of God, the question still remains as to how God appears to us whilst still remaining invisible and incomprehensible. The basic antinomy between the visibility and invisibility of God is found not only in the Scriptures, especially where it is expressed so clearly by St Paul in the very same verse, within his letter to the Corinthians where he states that God is “unknown and yet well-known” (2 Cor 6:9) but also in the liturgical tradition of the Church. For example we pray to Jesus Christ as the “true light which enlightens and sanctifies everyone who comes into the world” asking that He shine a sign of the light of His countenance upon us so that we can “see the unapproachable light.” Those unfamiliar with such a prayer would naturally conclude that it is nonsensical (that is non-sense) since it is logically impossible to “see” something, which we claim, at the same time to be “unapproachable”.
In referring to God, St John the Apostle can state that “we shall see him as he is” (1Jn 3:2) and yet within the same letter, and only a chapter later he can also claim that “no one has seen God at any time” (1Jn 4:12). It is therefore the purpose of this brief article to seek to offer an answer to this basic paradox since it has caused many to conclude from passages such as those cited above that the Scriptures are contradictory. In fact this theme has been commented upon at length by the entire Patristic tradition and therefore their insights are invaluable for the basic question at hand especially in the Fathers’ writings dealing with Old Testament visions. It is therefore proposed that this brief analysis be undertaken in two complementary stages: the first stage will reflect upon the various types of visions described in the Old Testament as this will shed light not only on how God reveals Himself and yet remains hidden but also which of the three persons of the Holy Trinity is actually ‘seen’ or sighted. In building upon these prophetic visions, the second and third part will seek to articulate systematically an understanding of the nature and character of the possibility of “seeing God”.
Three Types of Old Testament Visions
In the Old Testament there at least three types of visions described. The first could be said to include all those apparitions of God beheld by human persons in the form of angels whilst the second type of vision is that of a revelation in the form of a blinding light, which is believed to be divine. A third type of vision can be said to be that of a direct theophany bestowed upon the prophets. Whilst the third is the most significant type of vision in the Old Testament, the first two cannot be overlooked and it is to these that we now briefly turn.
God appears in the form of angels
Regarding the first type of vision, there are several Old Testament passages, which depict human beings being granted visions of angels which they interpret as personal revelations of the Lord Himself. In the very first book of the Old Testament Hagar is depicted seeing an angel to whom she speaks and believes to be the Lord Himself:
“The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness… and he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?”… “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.”… So she named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are the God of seeing; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”” (Gen 16:7-16)3
In the example sighted above, it is interesting to note that Hagar, who was the recipient of this vision, after being told that the child she would bear Abram was to be called Ishmael, left perplexed not being able to explain how she could see the Lord and survive.
Divine Sightings in the form of light
Following on from the previous type of theophany in the Old Testament, a second type of vision depicts angels of the Lord, which are identified in this instance with God in the form of a light of brightness or fire:
“And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire, out of the midst of a bush; and Moses looked, and lo, the bush was burning yet it was not consumed… God called to him out of the bush… And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Ex 3:2-6).4
In this case, we have clear manifestations of God’s divine energies in the form of fire or bright light revealing God’s presence in the world. The above passage highlights the paradox, yet again, in the Scriptures of God, who whilst appearing to Moses through His energies still remains hidden (since Moses hid his face).
Old Testament Prophetic Visions
The third categories of divine visions depicted in the Old Testament are those beheld by the prophets. These are the most significant since, as the Scriptures claim, they are not apparitions which certain faithful people encounter through a created medium, be that of an angel or a flame of fire, but are direct and personal encounters with God. One such example is the vision of Isaiah, who lived approximately 700 years before the coming of Christ. He described his vision in a very brief yet vivid way:
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew… the whole earth is full of his glory… and the house was filled with smoke. And I said, “… I am a man of unclean lips… yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is 6:1-5).
It is this vision of Isaiah to which our attention will now turn as this is one commented upon very often by the Patristic tradition of the Church. In the writings dealing with the Isaiah theophanies, the Fathers not only reflect upon which of the three persons of the Holy Trinity actually appeared to the prophets, but more importantly in what way God has actually revealed himself to the world whilst still remaining incomprehensible.
Regarding the first question as to whom of the three divine persons of the Trinity appear to the prophets, the first point would be that, within the Patristic corpus there are various answers given to this question. Some fathers, especially the Pre-Nicene ones would claim that “the Lord sitting upon a throne”, which was seen by Isaiah was God the Father Himself and that the two seraphs which were in attendance are none other than the Word of God and the Spirit of God.5 Other fathers, basing themselves on St John’s gospel would argue that it is Christ who appeared to Isaiah. In wanting to point out the failure of the people to believe in Jesus as the Incarnate Word, despite the many ‘signs’ that Jesus did, St John’s gospel contrasts this hardness of heart to the faith of the prophet Isaiah who believed in the pre-incarnated Christ:
“Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him. This was to fulfil the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah…. Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him” (Jn 12:37-38; 41).
In this passage the gospel reminds us of Isaiah’s vision of the Lord which had taken place approximately in the 8th century before Christ and interprets it as a vision of Jesus Christ. Accordingly, many fathers of the Orthodox tradition believed that it was the role of Christ to reveal the Father who was invisible and made known only through his Son. It is for this reason that St John the Evangelist states quite emphatically that:
“no one has ever seen God. It is God the only son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (Jn 1:18).
Clearly, for these fathers, it was the pre-Incarnated Logos who was the centre of all prophetic divine visions in the Old Testament. Such an interpretation continued to endorse those passages which affirmed the invisibility of God but also, more importantly, they acted as a testimony to the divinity of the incarnate Son of God.
Such a Christological interpretation was also favoured by the liturgical tradition of the Church. In the fifth canticle of hymns, the Orthodox Church sings on the feast day of the Meeting of our Lord:
“In a figure Isaiah saw God upon a throne, lifted up on high and borne in triumph by angels of glory; and he cried: ‘Woe is me! For I have seen beforehand God made flesh…”
It is in fact a taste of the future vision of God’s kingdom where all human beings will give thanks and glory to God, singing “holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth.”
The above two interpretations of Isaiah’s vision which explained the divine apparition either in terms of God the Father or His Son naturally led to a third understanding which brought together the first two. For many fathers, like the Cappadocians and later St John of Damascus, the vision of Isaiah included all three persons of the Trinity. They simply concluded that the apparent different interpretative readings of Isaiah’s vision simply reflected a refusal of the earlier Fathers to stipulate exclusively who was seen since they understood Isaiah’s vision in Trinitarian terms. It was the Holy Trinity whom the prophets saw and it was for this reason, they argued that Isaiah heard angels praising the one “Lord God” yet singing “holy” three times:
“Seraphs were in attendance above him [the Lord]; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Is 6:2-3).
Such an understanding basically underscored the belief of the Christian Church that whenever God acts in the world in whatever He does – including appearing to holy people – He does so with His Word and with His Spirit. Being a communion of three persons excludes a priori any individualistic understanding of God’s presence in the world. The divine presence was indeed distinct and personal yet it formed a single ‘dispensation’ (oikonomia) in its saving word to bestow the gift of life in all its abundance to the world and to restore the image of God in the human person. From this we can begin to see that the vision of God is both one and three since the way God is revealed in the world is in relationships of intimate love and communion. It remains for the next issue to discuss in detail and in a systematic manner the nature and character of the possibility of “seeing God.”
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. St John Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 1, chapter 2.
2. “then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” (Ex 33:23).
3. Compare other such visions: Gen 18; 22:1-19; Judg 2:1-5; 6:11-24; 13:3-22.
4. Other visions of this type can be found in Ex 24:16-18; Deut 5:23-27; Ez 10:1-5; I Kings 19:9-13.
5. See, for example Origen in Homiliae in visions Isaiae, 1,2. PG13,221BC.
Visions of the Invisible (Part II)
Having examined the two kinds of texts dealing with the vision of God in the previous issue of the Voice of Orthodoxy, which could, at first sight be thought to be contradictory and mutually exclusive, the second part of this article will attempt to reconcile theologically these passages, and in so doing articulate systematically an understanding of the nature and character of one’s vision of God. Hence this paper will seek to answer the following fundamental question: how indeed did the Church deal with the apparent dichotomy in the Scriptures which portrayed God as invisible yet at the same time visible? To be sure, such an exercise is indeed warranted since the Scriptures do not only depict God as invisible, inaccessible and unknowable1, but also promise us a vision of God as He is, thereby encouraging us to seek the face of God.2
Furthermore if God is ‘life’ (cf Jn 14:6), indeed eternal life which is granted to human beings as a gift of His grace, as the Scriptures affirm, then only those who shall see God as He is can hope for this gift of eternal life. Indeed Jesus connected seeing God with faith and salvation:
“This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life” (Jn 6:40).
One can therefore appreciate that the issue at hand is of soteriological significance. It must be said categorically, right from the outset, that the answer can surely not lie in believing that such visions may only have been possible for Old Testament prophets and holy people, but are now absolutely impossible for Christians living in the 21st century. Secondly, the answer to the question regarding the possibility of ‘seeing’ God, must not simplistically be thought to be an eschatological event which will be made possible only in the age to come – that is, in our life after our death.3 Surely the ‘vision’ of God must begin in this life and be fulfilled in the future life. We therefore now turn to examine how the invisible God can be seen and approached.
Our vision of God is not a vision of His essence
The first point which is certain in the Patristic texts is that any vision of God experienced by the prophets or the saints throughout the history of the Church, right up to today, whilst unequivocally accepted by the Fathers, was nevertheless not understood as an experience or vision of the ‘essence’ of God. God’s essence signifies what God is within Himself and that is, and forever will be, totally unknown, incommunicable, unapproachable, unutterable, beyond any human comprehension and, for the purposes of this article, invisible. St Gregory the Theologian (4th century) taught: “What God is in His nature and essence no human person has ever discovered or ever will discover.“4 Besides, this point is implicitly verified in Isaiah’s vision which we referred to in the first part of this article. If we take a close look at Isaiah’s vision of God, we will come to see that it was not a vision of God’s essence. This we know because God did not manifest to Isaiah His inner incorporeal nature but rather revealed Himself in an anthropomorphic way. Isaiah saw God as an old man ‘confined’, so to say, in that He was sitting on a throne. But we know from a well-known Orthodox prayer that God is not only ‘everywhere present and filling all things’, but also bodiless and therefore does not ‘sit’ or ‘stand’. However God’s desire to communicate with the world, which He created and intensely loves, freely ‘obligates’ God, in a manner of speaking, to appear in ways energetic that will enable Him to be seen by the world.
An analogy which can help clarify this point is the following: just as it is impossible for the human eye to ‘see’ images beyond the spectrum of light within which it has been created to operate (for example the human eye cannot see ultraviolet light or infrared light), so too human persons could not ‘see’ the divine order unless God used created means which humankind could behold. For this reason, it could be said that the way God ‘appears’ is dependent on the recipient of the vision and it is for this reason that throughout its history, the Church has recorded various types of different anthropomorphic theophanies as we noted in the first part of this article. In all these manifestations it was not the ‘essence’ of God which was beheld, rather the Orthodox tradition states that God who is unknown and invisible in His essence is revealed and existentially seen through His energies.
Our vision of God is a revelation of His uncreated energies
The Orthodox Christian tradition affirms that even though God cannot be seen in His essence, He is nevertheless revealed by means of His uncreated energies. The world’s vision of God is therefore according to the energies and not the essence. Consequently this distinction between essence and energies is indispensable and fundamental for understanding what is meant by one’s vision of God from an Orthodox perspective. Culminating with St Gregory Palamas (13th century), the Eastern Patristic tradition crystallized its answer to the possibility of ‘seeing’ God by introducing a distinction-in-unity within the Godhead between the ‘invisible’ and ineffable essence of God and His visible uncreated energies which flow out from God, manifesting and communicating His presence to the world. According to Palamas, God is not seen in His essence but is beheld in His energies:
“God is not revealed in His essence, for no one has ever seen or described God’s nature; but He is revealed in the grace, power and energy which is common to the Father, Son and Spirit. Distinctive to each of the three is the person of each, and whatever belongs to the person. Shared in common by all three is not only the transcendent essence – which is altogether nameless, unmanifested and imparticipable since it is beyond all names, manifestation and participation – but also the divine grace, power, energy, radiance, kingdom and incorruption whereby God enters through grace into communion and union with the holy angels and the saints.“5
From this we can see, that the Eastern Orthodox tradition affirms God’s incommunicability and invisibility yet at the same time maintains the real possibility of ‘seeing God’ as He is through His energies.
The reason that one is truly granted a vision of God through the manifestation of His energies is that they too are divine and uncreated, like God. Furthermore the energies are inseparable and indivisible from the essence6 and usually appear in the form of light. St Symeon the New Theologian (11th century) often spoke of his visions of God as light. One such example is the following citation which is full of paradox:
“It is not an apparition without substance… but appears in a light which is personal [hypostatikon] and substantial [ousiode]. [It is] in a shape without a shape, and in a form without a form [morphe amorphotos] that is seen invisibly and comprehended incomprehensibly.”7
The antinomic character of the above passage reveals the unconfused unity and indivisible distinction of the uncreated energies which are said to be ‘around’ the essence of God, inhering in God’s essence and eternally flowing out from the essence “as from an everlasting spring.”8 It was this subtle yet all-important distinction, which has allowed the Orthodox Church to affirm the mystical visions of saints without denying the essential ineffability and invisibility of God. Consequently it becomes clear that the acceptance of this distinction is an affirmation of a real vision of God by human persons.
An example of the essence-energy distinction as depicted in Moses’ vision
It is within this hermeneutical essence-energy principle that the Patristic writers interpreted the biblical story of Moses’ vision on Mount Sinai. Indeed the passage relating to Moses’ vision as it is recorded in the book of Exodus affirms clearly the belief of the Eastern Orthodox tradition that God reveals Himself (as He did to Moses) by manifesting His uncreated energies but not His essence. And yet in continuing our interpretation of Moses’ vision, it can also be stated, in a certain sense that God’s energies also reveal the existence of God’s consubstantial Being, since, as the biblical excerpt below shows, Moses knows that the essence of God exists (Moses is aware of the existence of God’s face even though he is unable to see it yet He does behold it to be totally incommunicable – like a dazzling darkness) and therefore distinguishes it from God’s energies:
Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, „The LORD‟; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” (Ex. 33:18-23).
In this case, according to the Fathers the ‘face’ of God, which Moses could not see, referred to the incomprehensible ‘essence’ of God. It is precisely because of the very fact that God is seen, that human persons are led to conclude that God is ‘entirely Other’ (das ganz Andere)9– that is, uncreated, eternal, totally free – in relation to the created world. God is therefore invisible not because He is unknown, but precisely because He has revealed Himself to the world. This implies, to see God, is a vision of the profound incomprehensibility of the divine nature – a vision of what God is not, and not what God is, in His essence – that is, a vision of the ‘otherness’ of God. Yet the ‘back’ of God, which Moses beheld as God’s glory passed by him was the uncreated energies of God.
Thus from the above interpretation it could be said that the terms ‘vision’ and ‘invisibility’ of God, despite the tendency to see them in antimonious terms, must be seen as correlative in the same way that we say that God is ‘being’ and ‘non-being’.
Far from introducing a division in God, the distinction between the essence and energies of God is, for the Eastern Orthodox tradition an inevitable postulate allowing for a real encounter or vision of God without confusing the world with the ineffable essence of the Godhead. The energies of God are therefore the manifestation and activity of the divine essence ad extra (that is, to the world) coming forth from the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. Therefore the uncreated energies are not only shared by all three persons of the Holy Trinity but the three persons always act together in their common action towards the world. Therefore it is precisely the uncreated energies of God which make it possible for human persons to ‘see’ or behold God. Therefore language about the energies of God expresses God’s presence, activity and visibility in the created world. It is the energies which define precisely the manner in which the three persons of the Holy Trinity are seen outside of their essence. The next part of this article will reflect on this last point concerning the personal vision of God.
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. An example of such Biblical texts are: (Ex. 33:20) But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”; (1Tim. 6:16) It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen.; (John 1:18) No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
2. An example of passages which refer to the possibility of seeing are: (Gen. 32:30) So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”; (Ex. 33:11) Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then he would return to the camp; but his young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent.; (Deut. 34:10) Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. (1John 3:2) Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is; (1Cor. 13:12) For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
3. St Symeon the New Theologian (11th century) refutes such an argument as he often describes in his writings visions of God that he had been granted. Refer to his Ethical Discourse 5, 112-24.
4. Oration 28, 17.
5. Synodical Tome of 1351.
6. Gregory Palamas, Triads, II.iii,15.
7. Ethical Discourses X.
8. Synodical Tome of 1351, 26.
9. This term was used by Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Relational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, trans. J.W. Harvey, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Visions of the Invisible (Part III)
In the last issue of the Voice of Orthodoxy we saw that within the Godhead there exists a distinction-in-unity between the essence of God and His energies. It was shown that the essence of God referred to the inexhaustible being of God as He is within Himself and for this reason would remain forever unknowable and inaccessible. On the other hand, by the energies of God, the Eastern Orthodox tradition recognized God’s common action towards creation as it is revealed outside of God’s transcendent essence. It must be remembered that insofar as the Orthodox Church claims that this distinction is real it affirms the human person’s genuine participation in God in an immediate and personal way without discarding God’s transcendence. Yet it could be said that this distinction is also methodological insofar as it is a creaturely means of expressing humanity’s participation in the Godhead without, in any way, destroying God’s simplicity, transcendence or without exhausting the fullness of the divine life. Ultimately, within this life, our vision and experience of God will always be like a “shadowy reflection of the sun in water”1 to use the beautiful analogy of St Gregory the Theologian (4th century). If it is impossible to gaze directly into the sun’s rays since its powerful light is too strong for the eye, how much more so unbearable would it be for a human person to behold the uncreated essence or nature of God directly.
To take this analogy a little further, even though the sun cannot be directly beheld, this is not to say that it does not exist or that its warmth cannot be enjoyed. Ultimately, in theology it is quite different to know that such a distinction between the essence and energies of God exists and to enjoy this reality, than to be able to grasp this fully with the mind or with language. Furthermore, in the same way that persons are able to enjoy the intricate mechanics of nature – the instinctive intelligence of the animal kingdom, its endless variety, the beautiful artistry displayed in the flora world, the wonder of the sea and so on – without necessarily being able to explain how they work, can they also, in faith enjoy God’s beatitude without grasping it fully with their reason. All this is so because ultimately God reveals Himself as Person to persons. It is to this aspect of our vision of God that we now turn especially since some may wish to conclude that the essence/energy distinction renders our vision of God impersonal, since, so they would argue, it discards the person of Christ wishing instead to speak of abstract or speculative energies. In fact, it will be shown that in speaking of the vision of God, the Orthodox tradition fully embraces the God of the Bible as He was graciously disclosed in the person of Christ, speaking in personal rather than essentialist categories.
Our Vision of God is personal
Since it is the Holy Trinity which is implied in speaking about humankind’s vision of God, then it has to be said that the uncreated energies of God are personal and not merely speculative. The energies are the personal presence and appearance of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the world outside of their divine nature. The energies come from the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit making the three persons present and active in a distinctive way. For example, all three persons of the Holy Trinity show forth their love but each expresses it with another sensitivity – the Father loves, the Son loves, the Holy Spirit loves, but it is another taste of love which is expressed from the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And it is these personal divine energies which gives the created world the possibility to see the invisible God, leading to a vision of both one and three. Therefore the vision of God, as an experience of the uncreated energies of God, and not His essence, is a vision of living divine persons.
Therefore far from constituting an undifferentiated impersonal encounter, the human person’s vision of God is personal in so far as the energies reveal the three persons in their communion or interpenetrating love. It must always be remembered that the Eastern Orthodox tradition has not only expressed the reality of seeing God in the distinction between God’s essence and God’s energies but also in a personalistic way – as a vision or personal encounter with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Accordingly, Orthodox theology would claim that whilst it is not the essence of God which can be seen, nor His uncreated energies as such (they are experienced), it is rather that God is seen as person or more correctly, as persons. Therefore personhood forms the basis of any possibility of beholding the grandeur and beauty of God. Therefore the energies of God are not experienced immediately from the essence but through the persons of the Holy Trinity. Since the Father willed, out of His love to create, continually provide for and ultimately save the world, by sending His only begotten Son down to earth to become incarnate by the power of the Holy Spirit, this means that our vision of God is a personal vision – a vision from Person to person.
Having affirmed the personal vision of God, the Orthodox tradition maintains that the key for appreciating the possibility of ‘seeing’ God is Jesus Christ. It was the Incarnation of the divine Logos of God which opened up a radically new prospect for the world’s vision of God. In the incarnation of the second person of the Holy Trinity, God is now totally ‘seen’ by the created world in the person of the Logos. Far from being an intellectual submission to a ‘transcendent’ idea of a ‘supreme being’ or an unmoved ‘first mover’, God was seen in the flesh by the first ‘eye-witnesses’ in His manifestation in the Person of Jesus Christ. And indeed the Gospels, which are a rational testimony and clarification of the Church’s vision of God bear witness to the fact that God was now personally seen in the historical presence of Christ. It is for this reason that the feast day celebrating the baptism of Christ in the Jordan River, is called theophany – that is the manifestation of Jesus Christ as Son of God. In uniting with human nature, Christ therefore opened up the way for the created world to behold the beauty and grandeur of God. And this vision is continually transmitted in the Church throughout the centuries by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it is only in Christ that we can fully speak of divine visions since the invisible God now became fully visible through His Son, the Lord Jesus.
Now, the world’s vision of God in the person of Christ is also a witness and manifestation of the person of the Father. In fact St Irenaeus stated this in an explicit and concise manner:
“that which is invisible in the Son is the Father and that which is visible in the Father is the Son,”2
This quotation is simply a confirmation of the verse found in the opening chapter of the Gospel according to St John which states that it is Jesus Christ who makes God the Father known: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father‟s heart, who has made him [the Father] known” (Jn 1:18). For this reason the basis to understanding what is meant by ‘vision’ of God is Jesus Christ. This is also made particularly clear in St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians:
“For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2Cor. 4:6)
Therefore the Orthodox Church would claim that any vision of God can only take place through the person of the Son of God. Since God became human, human persons can indeed claim not only to have seen God, but also to have touched, heard and experienced Him with all their faculties in a most intimate way. And in so far as we have seen Jesus Christ we have seen the Father since this is exactly what Jesus said in response to Philip’s request to Jesus to show him the Father:
“Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, „Show us the Father‟?” (Jn 14:9).
Even though it is the role of Christ to lead us to the Father, it is the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church to realise, bring about, and reveal this vision of God to the world today.
A Vision of ‘how’ God is and not ‘what’ God is
Now, having affirmed the possibility of ‘seeing’ God in so far as He offers His Son by the Holy Spirit to the world, it must be stated that this vision of God does not reveal ‘what’ God is, but ‘how’ God is. As to ‘what’ God is, this is beyond the grasp of the created world, since the ‘what’ of God refers to God’s essence, which, as we stated in the previous part of this article, is totally unknowable, ineffable and invisible. Therefore statements as to what is seen, that is His essence are entirely impossible since God’s essence is unapproachable. Yet when speaking about how God is seen, and this is as person in this regard we can speak of a vision of God using personal language in so far as God is personal. Regarding ‘how’ God exists and is revealed, we know from the person of Jesus Christ, that God is a communion of three persons and for this reason personhood becomes the key biblical concept in God’s self-manifestation to the world. A God who does not exist in concrete persons can neither be known nor exist or seen since it is persons who give existence [ie hypostasize] essence.3 On this, St Gregory Palamas wrote:
“And God speaking to Moses, did not say ‘I am the essence’, but ‘I am who I am’ (Ex 3:14); for He who is, is not from the essence, but rather the essence is from He who is; for He who is has captured in himself whatever is.“4
It is persons that have a real and specific existence – persons are the mode of existence of essence. The God who is and acts in the world is seen and known personally as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Therefore the essence is not without hypostasis but is rather a trihypostatical energetic essence.5
For the Fathers of the Church, it was the person who constituted the initial possibility of ‘seeing’ God. It was not the essence that preceded and defined existence but the person. The Fathers proclaimed that God is in principle a person, who being absolutely free from every necessity and predetermination hypostisized [ie gave existence to] His Being giving birth eternally to the Son and sending forth the Holy Spirit.6 From all that has been said thus far it becomes obvious that if this personal dimension regarding the vision of God is denied in terms of Christ then there is a danger of theology becoming speculative and abstract and therefore not real. Therefore our theology of the vision of God presupposes a vision of God as persons through which the uncreated energies of God emanate. From all this investigation, it has become clear that in speaking of the Godhead, the Eastern Orthodox tradition, in totality speaks of the distinction in God between the one unparticipable essence, the three hypostases [persons] and the grace or energies of God without which the biblical understanding of God as both transcendent, yet immanent and personal would make no sense. And it is to this triple distinction-in-unity that we will turn our attention in the next issue of the Voice of Orthodoxy.
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. St Gregory the Theologian, Oration 28:3.
2. Adv. Haer. 4,6,6.
3. Cf. C. Yannaras, Elements of Faith, 27.
4. Triads, 3,2,12.
5. Cf. S. Yangazoglou, “The Person in the Trinitarian Theology of Gregory Palamas”, Philotheos, 1(2001): 141.
6. C. Yannaras, Elements of Faith, 27.
Vision of the Invisible (Part IV)
Three Aspects in the Godhead
In reflecting upon our topic of the vision of God, we are led to a triple distinction-in-unity within the Godhead. The fullness of the deity includes God’s essence, His energies and the three persons (or Hypostases)1 where all three realities constitute an indivisible unity of eternal life and existence. God’s essence or His energies cannot be considered apart from the three persons. Nor can personhood be thought of apart from God’s essence or energies. Accordingly whilst it is true that there is no such thing as a ‘naked’ essence, it is also true that there can be no hypostasis [ie persons] devoid of an essence. In this respect St Gregory Palamas wrote:
“Three aspects are in God and they are of essence, of energy and of the Trinity of divine hypostases”.2
These aspects of God do not exist unrelated to each other but are united unconfusedly and distinguished indivisibly. Neither the essence nor the energies are seen but it is the person of Jesus Christ who is seen by the power of the Holy Spirit which leads the created world to a vision of God, the Father. God is therefore seen not merely from His energies but from the persons who have the energies. In speaking about the vision of God the Eastern Orthodox tradition is, as a result prosopentric (ie centred on a personal God). For this reason the Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Church did not speak of their experience of God in an impersonal way but in a personal way – an experience of God as three persons who are seen from the energies whose source are God’s essence. In introducing these distinctions-in-unity within the Godhead the divine simplicity is not destroyed. Just like the unity of the Godhead is not destroyed when speaking of three persons in the one essence, so too the simplicity of God is not compromised by the essence-energy-prosopon distinction.
God is ‘seen’ as Persons in Communion
In revealing Himself to the world, through His energies, God is not seen as a ‘faceless essence’ but personally as a ‘Tri-hypostatic being’. The human person can claim to ‘see’ God since the uncreated nature of God and the created nature of the human person have a common mode of existence, and this is the reality of personhood. Created in the image and according to the likeness of God (Gen 1:26), the human being too is a person who can thus relate to a personal God. God is empirically seen because as person He is revealed to persons. Therefore that God exists and is seen as person par excellence is without doubt the basis of any theology of the vision of God. The energies of God are experienced not immediately from the essence but through the persons of the Holy Trinity. Therefore any vision of God can only take place through the person of the Son of God in the Holy Spirit.
The Church can claim that the world can behold the beauty of God because it has witnessed the manifestation of the Son of God as the second Person of the Holy Trinity. Yet the fact that God is seen as a person does not destroy His transcendence, as some would want to claim. Evidence of this is in our human relations – we cannot claim to know exhaustively, even a person whom we love very much, even though we may see and live with them every day of our life because there will come a moment, entirely unpredictably where they will totally surprise us. Therefore if this is true about human persons, whom we physically see, how much more so when it comes to the inexhaustible divine persons who reveal themselves to the world. Therefore we can say that indeed God’s being is known and experienced through His energies in an entirely personal way without this destroying the transcendence of the Godhead.
Having affirmed the vision of God in terms of the person of Christ, it follows that our vision of God through the energies, which were discussed at length in the previous article of the Voice of Orthodoxy is made possible because it is the person of Christ who bestows the uncreated energies to the world by the Holy Spirit. The energies are not personal but become personal in so far as they emanate from the person of Christ and the Holy Spirit. The rich theological language of the Eastern Church described this phenomenon as the en hypostaton of the uncreated energies. All that this means is that the energies, in and of themselves could not be experienced and seen by human persons if it was not for the
persons (or hypostases) of the Holy Trinity who give expression to them. Therefore the dynamism and the richness of the divine nature is manifested personally to the created world through the ‘enhypostacized’ energies. Therefore the basis for any vision of God is centred on the divine person of Christ who manifests the uncreated energies of God through the grace of the Holy Spirit. Consequently it is the divine persons who communicate their uncreated energies to human persons – therefore the vision is of God is a vision of the divine persons which is bestowed to created human persons.
The Eschatological Dimension of our Vision of God
The last point in this discussion regarding the vision of God is that the consummation of our vision of God where God will be seen as He is, is an eschatological reality. In the present life the human person can really share, but only as a foretaste, in the future vision of God. The incarnation of Christ has inaugurated and signifies the unending perfection of the Kingdom of God. It is important to stress that the experience begins in this world (it is not a future reality), but it will be fully beheld in the future Kingdom. Even in the Kingdom to come, God’s radiance will not be static but will develop infinitely. Writing on this point, St Gregory Palamas wrote:
“clearly it will develop infinitely… since He who gives Himself is infinite and He bestows abundantly and lavishly, how can the sons of the age to come not progress infinitely in this vision, acquiring grace after grace and joyfully ascending the ascent that never wearies?”3
Therefore just because the vision of God as He is belongs to the future, this does not mean that God cannot be ‘seen’ in this life. Rather the truth of any theology of the vision of God has to lie within the dialectic of the already and not yet. Besides, this is the testimony of the Scriptures. In his first letter, John the Evangelist panegyrically begins with a declaration of Him whom he had seen, touched and heard:
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1Jn 1:1)
And yet in chapter three of that same letter, St John uses the future tense when writing about the vision of God:
“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1John 3:1-2).
An authentic theology of the vision of God therefore postulates a dialectical knowledge of God, where one can rightly speak of having been graced with really seeing God without this manifestation being fully exhaustive.
The theandric dialectic of the vision of God
While it is true to say that the vision of God presupposes God’s revelation of Himself to the one receiving the vision, it also requires the response of the recipient. Like most events in the Church, if not all, the gift of ‘seeing God’ too is a theandric event. The possibility of Isaiah’s vision involved a downward action on the part of God to make himself known but also necessitated an upward movement on the part of Isaiah to respond adequately to this gift of seeing God. We would say that God, in His condescension makes himself known, but the human person also needs to have acquired this spiritual purity or divine illumination from God in the first place. If the ability to see the physical world requires clear eyesight how much more so does this apply to God – we must acquire spiritual eyes and allow God to see himself in us. Therefore the ‘good change’ (kalhv ajlloivwsi”) of which the Eastern fathers constantly speak is a necessary prerequisite.
Purity of heart and God’s illumination are necessary for this vision of God. It is for this reason that Jesus says that “blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.” (Mt 5:8). In bestowing His uncreated energies upon human persons which inescapably necessitates a human response, the person acquires the properties of God’s energies – that is they too become, by grace all that God is by nature. This new state of being is often described with a wonderful analogy – that of a piece of iron which when heated becomes red hot and cannot be differentiated from the fire but which nevertheless remains iron in its nature. So too the human person is ‘deified’ but does not cease to be human – that is mortal and created. The divine light which is seen by the saint is therefore a result of the transformation of the body which is brought about by God enabling the human person to ‘see’ God. Since ‘perfect’ holiness will never be fully realised in our earthly life, we will continue to move from a ‘soiled’ vision of God. Yet our graced potentiality to grow towards God creates glimpses of pure joy experienced in Christ opening up for us new horizons which are described in the epistle of Peter:
“Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy” (1Pt 1:8).
From all this it becomes clear that whilst the vision of God is an act of love and a gratuitous act of grace, yet it is in part proportionate to our love and obedience to God’s commandments.
From the above we would conclude that the Orthodox tradition has always affirmed the possibility of a ‘real’ and ‘direct’ vision of God. Furthermore we would claim that all statements within Scripture referring to God’s invisibility lead to a positive vision and encounter with God – a real vision of the glory of God granted as a gift by the operation of the Spirit. All statements regarding God’s invisibility act as the basis or springboard for a leap beyond discursive reasoning to a real vision of God. Just like the sculptor chips away from a formless slab of marble so as make possible the revelation of the image latent within, so too Scriptures refer to God’s unknowability so as to remove any temptation, that God can be exhaustively ‘defined’, grasped or exhaustively ‘understood’ and allows us to reach out toward the transcendent one so as to attain a real experience of the divine. In this regard, St Dionysios the Areopagite maintained:
“We must proceed like the sculptor who removes all hindrances which conceal the divine purity of what is hidden and only the removing to allow the hidden beauty to shine of itself.”4
By way of conclusion it could be said it is entirely appropriate to speak of a vision of God. Even references to God’s invisibility are in reality super-affirmations of his visibility and nearness whereby God is personally seen as dazzling darkness through His uncreated energies flowing our from His ineffable essence.
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. Cf Gregory Palamas, PG 1173B.
2. Chapters on Nature and Theology 75, V.
3. Defence of the Hesychasts, 2,2,11.
4. Dionysios the Areopagite, De Mystica Theologia, 2. PG 3, 1025.