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ON TERMINOLOGY, EXPRESSIONS, AND CONCEPTS IN THEOLOGY 

by Protopresbyter John S. Romanides

The Fathers stress that all the expressions and concepts that a person can have are products of human thought. Concepts and expressions do not come down from heaven and God did not personally create concepts and expressions in the human mind. The Fathers base this teaching on their experience of theosis, which leads them to stress that every human language is a human invention. Man is the creator of the language with which he communicates with his fellow man. There is no divine language. God does not have His own language that He gave to man and He does not even communicate with man via some special language that He gives to those with whom He communicates. Language is the result of human needs. People formed it in order to help them communicate and interact. [cf. Genesis 2:19, 20]

So language is not what it was made out to be by Dante, a good number of Protestants, and the Frankish theologians of the Middle Ages. It is also not what the Muslims claim for the Koran — that the Koran and its language came down from heaven. The Muslims even maintain that there exists an uncreated Koran in heaven. On this very issue, there is an important discussion that took place between St. Gregory of Nyssa and the Eunomians. The Eunomians believed in the existence of a divine language that God revealed to the prophets and that included the names for God that the prophets mentioned. So the Eunomians were claiming that the names for God were the essence of God and that these names for God mentioned in Holy Scripture conveyed concepts that corresponded to the reality that is God. Of course, this is not the case.

In line with the above, we cannot make any distinction between a divine language and human languages, because there is no divine language with which God speaks to mankind. There is also no way to discern which words are appropriate for theology and which are not. There’s no unambiguous distinction between acceptable and unacceptable terminology. The only criterion that we can use for terminology about God is the criterion of reverence. There are words that are not in good taste for us to use when referring to God. For example, it is disrespectful to say that God is a smooth operator. There are others words, however, that are respectful enough to use when we speak about God, such as saying that God is Light.

In this context, the epistemology of the Fathers, which is clearly empirical, is in its entirety quite useful at least for Orthodox Christians, and perhaps for other Christians as well. You could even call it quite modern. After all, when the Fathers composed their writings, they did not suspect that a Frankish tradition would later develop under the influence of Augustinian thought. Most of the Fathers in the East were not familiar with Augustine. Those who did know something about him did not consider him very important, at least in the earlier days. In any event, the Fathers did not read Augustine’s writings and certainly could not imagine that the entire Western tradition of Goths, Franks, Lombards, Normans, and others would later embrace him as their only source of guidance in theology. Unfortunately, Augustine espoused the epistemology of the Platonists, Neoplatonists, and Aristotelians. Since his epistemology was clearly Aristotelian-Platonic, it was also completely different from that of the Church Fathers.

What sets Augustine’s theology apart from the rest of Patristic theology is that he theologically accepts the very essence of Platonism by accepting Plato’s archetypes. According to Plato, all things in the world are copies of certain archetypes. Naturally, the Fathers not only thoroughly rejected this teaching and the very existence of Plato’s archetypes, but they even excommunicated from the body of the Church those who accepted Plato’s archetypes, because the acceptance of these archetypes is a form of idolatry.56 Today, I do not know if there is any serious-minded human being who accepts this teaching.

From what has been said so far, you can see why Orthodox Christians do not make a distinction between secular and religious terminology. There are not secular words on the one hand and religious words on the other. All the words that we use for concepts about God are secular words. It is enough that they be respectful.

Thus, we see God or the Old Testament Yahweh being described as a rock. But is God a rock? In the spirit of Platonic philosophy, we should only use abstract expressions for God.57 We should employ terms like nous, logos, intellect, hypostasis, substance, trinity, unity, and so forth. Nevertheless, the Bible uses words like mountain, rock, stone, water, river, sky, sun, and so on. In other words, if we take a look at the Old Testament, we will find many names attributed to God that are not taken from human form or nature, but from inanimate creation. The energy of God is described as a cloud, fire, light, and so forth.

Since the time of the prophets, and even earlier Jewish tradition has known that man cannot make any image of God, because God does not have any image in the material universe. In the Old Testament, any image of God whatsoever is forbidden. This is why the Jews did not have icons or images in the Old Testament of God. [Now the Incarnation changes everything!!!]

The only exact image of God the Father is Christ, the Word of God Who became man. God does not have any other images outside of Christ. A common human being is not an image of God. Only Jesus Christ the God-man is the image of God. With the exception of Christ in His human nature, nothing in the created world is an image of God.58

This is the reason why we are free to borrow any name or concept and to attribute it to God as long as we do so in an apophatic way, because God does not have any likeness in the created world and because there are no concepts in the created world that can be attributed to God as a way of identifying Him. So on the one hand, we do attribute a name to God, but only if, on the other hand, we also take it away from Him. For example, although we say that God is Light, we negate this at the same time by saying that God is also darkness. We do not add this qualification because God is not Light, but because God transcends light. God does not lack anything, but He exceeds everything. This will become clearer as we proceed.

At this point, we come to a crucial difference between the apophatic theology of the Church Fathers and that of the Western Scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages. Even today if we open up a dogmatic textbook written by Roman Catholic theologians, we will come across their claim that there are two ways to theologize – one way involves attributing names to God and the other negative way involves removing these names from God. But what is absurd is that for them these names are not taken away from God in order to avoid attributing them to Him, but in order to purify the names of their imperfections.

But you will not find such a thing in the Church Fathers, for whom the method of attributing names to God is really quite simple. Names are given and they are taken away. In other words, they make use of opposites. But when the Fathers speak about God and attribute opposites to Him, they negate Aristotle’s law of contradiction59 and in so doing overturn the entire edifice of Aristotelian philosophy.

This means that the Fathers do not follow the rules of logic when they deal with theological matters or talk about God. Why? Because the rules of logic are valid, in so far as they are valid, only for God’s creation. The rules of logic or philosophy are not applicable with God. There is not any philosophical system or system of logic that can be applied to God. The Fathers consider those who think that they can approach God via pure mathematics to be terribly naive, simply because there is no similarity between the created and uncreated. What is valid in the created realm is not valid for the uncreated reality that is God, because there are no rules from created reality that can be applied to uncreated reality.

The Fathers do not say anything about God on the basis of philosophical reflection. They do not sit at their desks like the Scholastics in order to do theology, because when the Church Fathers theologize, speculation or reflection is strictly forbidden. The only sensible way to study the Bible is not to speculate (that is, to try to understand Holy Scripture by employing the reason or abstractions), but to pray. But what do we mean by prayer? Noetic prayer, because noetic prayer means that the Holy Spirit visits the believer and prays within his heart. When this occurs, the believer is illumined and becomes capable of rightly understanding the concepts from the Old and New Testament, and is also in a position to be led from his present state of illumination to theosis.

If and when someone reaches theosis, he will know from the very experience of theosis precisely what is meant by the sayings and concepts that he comes across in the Bible. This now brings us to an interpretive key — when those who reached theosis and who wrote Holy Scripture use expressions or concepts, these concepts are divinely inspired in the sense that they are based on the experience of illumination or theosis. This also applies to the expressions or concepts used in the writings of the Church Fathers and the saints. In other words, they wrote what they wrote on the basis of this experience and because of this experience what they wrote is divinely inspired.

Protopresbyter John S. Romanides

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Notes:

56 See “Conciliar Decrees of the Holy and Ecumenical Seventh Council lor Orthodoxy” (Athens: Fos Publications), pp. 155-166.

57 That is, we should use terms for God that have a spiritual or intellectual content rather than a material one.

58 Adam was fashioned in the image of Christ. Strictly speaking, man is not an image of God the Father, but he is an image of Christ.

59 A law of Aristotelian logic that states that it is impossible for p and not p to be true. For example, an object cannot simultaneously be entirely black and entirely white. It can be black or white, but it cannot be both at the same time.