Ascension, Barlaamism, Bishop Auxentios of Etna and Portland, Christopher Veniamin, Empirical Dogmatics, Glossary, Hesychasm, James L. Kelley, Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Noetic Faculty, nous, Patristic Theology, Pentecostarion, Pietism, Protopresbyter John S. Romanides, Romanides, Salvation, St. Gregory Palamas, St. Seraphim of Sarov, Theoria, Theosis
…how do the Fathers theologize in the Orthodox tradition? First of all, the Fathers invoke Holy Scripture in order to support the teaching of the Church. But when a heresy appears, they likewise invoke the experience of those who have reached theosis and are still alive. When the Arian heresy appeared, the Fathers invoked the experience of those who had reached theosis and were alive during the age of the Arian conflict. So there are two ways that a theologian can build his argument. Nevertheless in order for a statement to be Orthodox, the two kinds of reasoning must be reconcilable. The arguments should be identical or complementary. They must not contradict each other. While reasons are formed and conclusions are drawn mainly from Holy Scripture, the argumentation is always sealed and confirmed as sound on the basis of the documented experience of the Church Fathers, including both the saints who have fallen asleep and those saints who are alive at the time of the heresy’s appearance.
But this is precisely what takes place in every science. If we look at Chinese manuscripts on astronomy, for example, we will read about an immense explosion that occurred in the universe on July 4th, 1054, and that the Chinese astronomers were able to record. For two weeks, they could see the light from this explosion. In other words, we possess a Chinese manuscript that refers to this incident. Now when we read this manuscript today, we might call it a bunch of nonsense, but contemporary astronomers have verified that this explosion or supernova really did happen at that time and resulted in a cloud that they have since called ‘the Crab Nebula.’ In other words, we have before us recorded written evidence for a phenomenon that is confirmed by the experience of contemporary astronomers.
In like manner, the Bible documents, the experience of the prophets and the Apostles. But how can we verify their experience of theosis today? How can we confirm that the Bible’s descriptions of God and Christ are reliable? From a Patristic point of view, the saints living in every age who reached the stage of seeing Christ in glory provide us with this verification and confirmation through their personal experience. They can assure their contemporaries that what is mentioned in the Bible is true. So we not only possess the personal experience of the Church Fathers, which is the same as the experience of the prophets and the Apostles, but we also have the experience of the saints living in every age. And we can see that this tradition of the experience of’ theosis was vigorous and nourishing until the end of the Turkish yoke and still looms large in the consciousness of Orthodox Christians.184 So some Church Fathers in their struggle against the heretics would also invoke their own experience of theosis. For example, St. Gregory the Theologian invoked his personal experience in his struggle against the Eunomians.
But the question is whether or not we understand the relationship between the written text of the Bible and the experience of theosis that exists today. Naturally, whether or not a contemporary experience is genuine is another matter, but we will examine that topic separately. For the time being, we can see the very same issue of documentation and experience also at work in astronomy. On the one hand, there are texts about astronomy. On the other hand, there is empirical or observational astronomy. The relationship between what is documented in astronomical texts and what is observed astronomically through a modern telescope forms a perfect analogy to the relationship between the prophets’ and Apostles’ experience of glorification documented in the Bible, as well as the experience of theosis documented in Patristic literature and the contemporary experience of saints who are alive today.
If we ignore the contemporary experience of saints who are alive today, it is like ignoring telescopic astronomy of the observatory and being satisfied merely with what is documented in books on astronomy. If for some reason contemporary astronomers one day would be content to merely read the descriptions in astronomy books, and if they were not able to confirm by observation through a telescope what these books mention, would we consider this astronomy to be orthodox or heretical? We would assuredly consider such astronomy to be heretical or not genuine. After all, how could it possibly be genuine, since it would not be able to be confirmed empirically by observation? Besides, a description can never fully do justice to a lived experience and living reality.
We encounter this same relationship between written descriptions and empirical verification in all the exact sciences. We also encounter it in theology. Lived experience tests the absence or presence of authenticity in the documented descriptions of written or oral tradition.
Question from a student: Is the testimony of Holy Scripture not sufficient? Why is the experience of ‘theosis’ necessary for the verification of Biblical truth?
Answer: It is necessary because of the rise of modern Greek theology that has caused modern Orthodox Christians in Greece to sit around and busy themselves with the Bible, irrespective of the prerequisites for such. Moreover, as far as they are concerned, the Bible is a book separate from the experience of the prophets and the Apostles. Even though the Bible itself speaks about the prophets’ and the Apostles’ experience of theosis, modern Greek theology is not aware of this and could care less for what Holy Scripture has to say on this subject.
If you want proof, check out some modern theological writings. You will not find a single passage where they talk about the theosis and glorification of the Apostles and the prophets. In other words, this Patristic interpretation of the Old and New Testament has disappeared from Biblical hermeneutics in contemporary Greece.185 Why? Because the Russians, Protestants, and Roman Catholics have strongly biased our own Biblical interpreters against taking into consideration the Patristic method of biblical interpretation. We have the Old Testament, we have the New Testament, we have the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, and we have the Patristic tradition. Nevertheless, in Greece today there are people who claim that they are conservative, but who in fact accept tradition out of a blind devotion to tradition. In other words, their acceptance really does not go beyond external forms.
If someone does not know what the foundation of the prophetic, apostolic, and Patristic experience is – which is the foundation of doctrine – how will he be able to defend Orthodox doctrine without referring to the experiences of the Fathers? Will he be able to do so only on the basis of what the Bible mentions? If he only refers to the Bible, and does not refer to Patristic experiences, he will not be able to explain how the Fathers formulated doctrine. And so he will be forced to agree with the heterodox who maintain that when the Fathers formulated doctrine they were in fact philosophizing on the basis of what is mentioned in Holy Scripture. But the truth of the matter is that the Fathers formed dogmas on the basis of their experience of theosis, and not after philosophical reflection on what is mentioned in the Bible.
Thus, when modern Greek theology deviated from the hesychastic tradition – which was preserved until the end of the Turkish yoke – an absurd tradition emerged in which modern Greek theology was forced unwittingly to follow the path of those Church Fathers who did philosophize (such as Augustine and his followers). That is, Modern Greek theology was forced to portray the Fathers as philosophers in the spirit of Greek antiquity who formulated doctrine by means of philosophical reflection. But this is not a description of Patristic tradition. It is an outright caricature.
So from a purely scientific perspective, it is imperative for us Orthodox Christians to spell out how Orthodox theology has progressed through history on the basis of Patristic methodology so that we will be able to understand our present situation. If we do not do this, Orthodoxy won’t be able to stand its ground, because, from a scientific point of view, Orthodoxy cut off from the Patristic method is sheer nonsense. Anyone who is well acquainted with modern philosophical methodology, the scientific method, the history of philosophy, and the history of theology (à la the heterodox) will be able to see that this kind of Orthodoxy can stand its ground only with the backing of the armed forces. No serious-minded person will be convinced of the truth and validity of Orthodox doctrine in this way.
And for starters, I certainly would not be convinced. If Orthodoxy were in fact what is described in modern Greek textbooks, I would be an atheist today. When Orthodox teaching is cut off from its roots, it becomes utterly ridiculous. And this includes the teachings about the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, and everything else. For instance, what does the phrase “one essence and three hypostases” mean, if this formulation is cut off from the experience of theosis, the Transfiguration, and Pentecost? Logically speaking, it is absolutely meaningless. And in that case, what would be the aim of theology? Perhaps the purpose of having a sacred dogma is for me to be able to put it on my dresser and worship it? Or maybe I need to have a dogma, so that I will be able to make moralistic speeches?
The crux of the matter from the Patristic point of view is that every human being is sick. There is not a single human being who functions normally, apart from the saints. Today, everyone has his own criteria for what functioning normally means. But who is really normal? Who is insane and who is not? There are some people who are so very abnormal that they are locked up in mental institutions because they are either dangerous to themselves or to society. But there are also many others who are equally dangerous, but who are not locked up in mental institutions. So how can we determine who is normal and who is abnormal?
Then, Patristic theology comes along and says that no one is normal. And it explains how God gave man noetic energy which is a physiological component of human nature, but which unfortunately does not function at all in the average human being, or merely functions in an underdeveloped way. In order to make this noetic energy function again, the human personality must first be healed.
Now the need for healing and the process of healing the human personality are the parameters that form the core of Orthodox tradition. But Orthodox Christians are not the only ones whose noetic energy needs to be healed. Noetic energy is not something Orthodox. This need for healing is not a trait of Orthodox Christians alone, but of all humanity. Everyone has a nous and that nous must be healed. So when we talk about Orthodox spirituality in the Patristic sense of the term, it means that we are talking about the healing of everyone’s nous. In other words, Orthodox spirituality is a curative course of treatment that is aimed at all people and designed to include all people. It is called Orthodox because you cannot be healed if you have not embraced Orthodox doctrine and acquired an Orthodox dogmatic conscience. In this case, dogma is not aimed at making man submissive and locking him up within the confines of a religious system. No, it is aimed at contributing to his cure. On its own, dogma has no other purpose besides leading man to this cure.
Now what is wrong with modem Greek theology? Although the Fathers recognize that everyone has a nous186 and that it needs to be healed, modern Greek theology and modern Orthodoxy do not recognize this need. If the curative treatment of the nous is not placed once more at the base of modern Orthodoxy and if its Patristic foundation is not restored, then we will suffer the consequences – dogma cut off from its foundation will become untenable and incomprehensible; Orthodoxy will stray from its main objective and work, and consequently not be able to stand on its own.
In this case, Orthodoxy will be like a skyscraper that does not rest on a foundation, but on a cloud. If the common man sees such an image, what will he say? He will say, “That is ridiculous”. And if there are some people who believe that it is possible for a skyscraper to be supported by a cloud, won’t they be ridiculous as well? Can they possibly be anything else? In like manner, if you cutoff dogma from its foundation, dogma ends up being incomprehensible in terms of its origin.
So what do the modem Greek theologians do next? They remove the experience of theosis as the foundation for doctrine and put the Bible in its place. Of course, the prophets,’ and the Apostles’ experiences of theosis are described within the pages of the Bible. It records how this person was glorified and how that person was glorified. Yes, it is true that Holy Scripture mentions that all the prophets saw the glory of God, but when there is no way to verify this experience, everyone begins to use his imagination in order to interpret what is mentioned in the Bible.
For example, someone reads that Christ ascended into heaven in a cloud. On the one hand, if this person can think for himself, if this person has nothing to do with the experience of theosis, and if he has not even heard about it, he will start laughing when he reads such an account. He will say, “How is it possible for a man to sit on a cloud?” On the other hand, if this person is a superstitious Orthodox Christian, he will say, “Oh look, our sweet little Jesus did this miracle, too! He sat on a cloud and ascended into heaven.” And he will believe it. Someone else might even imagine that at the Ascension Christ began to be lifted up on a cloud as though it were an elevator.
But according to the Fathers, this ‘cloud’ is not a created cloud. It is not a mass of water droplets. This ‘cloud’ is the uncreated glory of God. In the Bible, the glory of God is called ‘a cloud,’ ‘light,’ and ‘fire.’ When the Bible mentions how ‘the pillar of fire’ and the ‘pillar of cloud’ went before the children of Israel in the desert, the Bible is referring to the same phenomenon – the glory of God.187 Hence, Christ did not ascend in or on a cloud of water droplets, nor did He go up to heaven as though He were riding an elevator. Rather, He ascended in glory as the dismissal hymn for the feast of Transfiguration clearly states. In other words, Christ simply disappeared in the midst of uncreated glory before the Apostles’ eyes.
When dogmas are cut off from their source, they become untenable. This is why the Church in Greece is now188 going through a crisis.189 After the war of 1940, Greek children went to catechetical schools190 and were instructed in pietism. They learned a new Protestant-style interpretation of the Bible, a new interpretation of doctrine, a new kind of Orthodoxy, and so forth. And their minds were filled with moralizations and Puritanism. And of course, they learned these things through cute little phrases. And who knows how many of you have gone to such catechetical schools that have so many slogans and ditties, where they teach Orthodoxy using ditties like “O our Christ, O our Christ”.
But what happened next? What ever became of those who went to such catechetical schools? Their faith was shaken, because it was not well grounded in anything, and so they were left with Puritanism. This is the reason why we have moralistic politicians in Greece who now make speeches on improving morality. Instead of using the law as a criterion for legal order, these politicians use ethical criteria in order to assess the behavior of citizens (whether they are good or bad). This is why democracy in Greece is in danger today. When the law is identified with morality, you cannot have democracy, because under such conditions you cannot tolerate bad people.
And now how will these people become Orthodox after their faith has been shaken? I assure you that, given the way ideas move about freely today, this kind of Modern Greek Orthodoxy will be buried. Whether it will be buried by materialistic ideology (Marxism, existentialism, atheism, and so forth) or by a revival of Patristic tradition is another matter. In any event, what is certain is that it will be buried. It cannot possibly survive. Perhaps the Patristic tradition will be rekindled and it will bury this pseudo-orthodoxy. But if the Patristic tradition does not bury it, modern scientific thought will certainly do so, because a Biblical interpretation that fails to explore thoroughly the theological method of the Bible and to demonstrate its relationship with that method cannot possibly remain standing today.
The theological method of the Bible is based on the experience of glorification and theosis. How do we know this? Read the Old and New Testaments. You will see for yourselves how often it mentions that a prophet was glorified. In other words, he saw the glory of God; he saw the Angel of glory; he saw God; and so forth. We can see the same emphasis in the New Testament as well. The Bible is a description of revelations of Christ before and after the Incarnation. The question is whether or not we correctly interpret the Bible. In other words, how do we know if a revelation of Christ or an experience of theosis that is described in Holy Scripture is genuine? How can we know or determine whether someone who says that he saw God is a true prophet or a false prophet? According to St. Paul, the true or genuine prophet has reached theosis, while the false prophet claims to have reached theosis without having reached it.
Someone who has reached theosis knows about the creation of the world, because in the state of theosis he can see that which is derived from the Father and that which is derived from non-being. In other words, he can see not only what comes from non-being and is dependent on the will of God, but also what is from God, which includes the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, the essence, the natural energy of the essence, the dominion, the rule, the glory, the energy of God that “is multiplied without being multiplied among many,” and so forth. Whatever comes from the Father and has its existence from the Father, and not from non- being, is uncreated, while whatever comes from non-being is created.
What was written in the Bible about the creation of the world was written on the basis of this experience of theosis. Holy Scripture did not get its description from heaven, nor did its description appear out of the blue. The Muslims claim that the Koran comes from heaven and believe that the Koran is uncreated, but the Bible is not like that. It did not fall from the sky. It is also not an intellectual revelation cut off from the experience of theosis.
The Bible talks about the experiences of the prophets and the Apostles; it also talks about glorification; it also talks about the prayer of the Holy Spirit. So we can see Biblical tradition that was present before the appearance of the Bible and before the writing of the Mosaic Pentateuch. The Bible appeared at a specific moment in history, but the core of the Bible was present before its appearance as a written manuscript. Now what is this core? It is the patriarchs’ and the prophets’ communion with God. Biblical tradition does not revolve around the Bible as a book, but around the patriarchs’ and prophets’ experiences of theosis. So what does Holy Scripture do? It simply records in writing the description of these experiences, even though they really cannot be described, because they are literally indescribable and beyond human reason. Holy Scripture does not aim at describing God, because God is indescribable. Holy Scripture aims at guiding man to union with God. This is the reason why the Bible uses symbolic language when it talks about God. After all, the prophet is forced to use concepts, forms, and images taken from human experience in order to describe the uncreated, which remains indescribable.
—Protopresbyter John S. Romanides
184. This tradition continues through the saints of the Church who are alive today.
185. The year is 1983.
186. The Church services refer to the healing of the nous as a treatment that clearly applies to all people.
187. Cf. Numbers 14:14 – TRANS.
188. The year is 1983.
189. Unfortunately, this crisis continues in our times.
190. In other words, the catechetical schools of the organizations of Zoi, and Sotira that are independent from the Church. —TRANS.