Publications: Articles - Theology
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 enhypostaton 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 Secretary and Associate Lecturer
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.