Publications: Articles - Theology
Visions of the Invisable (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 Secretary and Associate Lecturer
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.