( skip to main content )



Contact Us

Publications: Articles - Theology

Visions of the Invisable (Part II)

Introductory Remarks

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.

Philip Kariatlis
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College

Footnotes

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.

< Back to the articles list