Apophatic Theology, Barlaamism, Empirical Dogmatics, Genuine Orthodoxy, Hieromonk Haralampos (Skordakis), Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Name-Worship, Protopresbyter John S. Romanides, St. Dionysios the Areopagite, St. Gregory Palamas, Terminology
Part 4—The Living Monuments of Revelation
The God-seers, who are rightly described as the bearers of revelation, record the experience of revelation in writing, when it is necessary to do so. These writings can be called the living monuments of revelation. In the same way as artists express their inspiration in the works of art that they create — statues, paintings, poetry and so on — so the God-seers record this experience of revelation in texts.
These living monuments of revelation are Holy Scripture, which consists of the Old and New Testaments, and Holy Tradition, which is the writings of the holy Fathers and the whole Tradition of the Church. It is generally accepted that there are two sources of the faith: Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition. According to Orthodox teaching, however, the source of faith is the revelation of God, which is expressed through the Tradition and Holy Scripture.
Before discussing Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition, the relationship between ineffable-uncreated words and created words and concepts should be examined.
1. Ineffable-Uncreated Words and Created Words and Concepts
One of the basic points of Orthodox theology is the relationship between ineffable words, on the one hand, and created words and concepts, on the other. The revelation of God is an experience of ineffable words and the revelation is recorded or conveyed with created words, concepts and images.
When someone does not understand this basic theological teaching he confuses matters and ends up either denying the theoria (vision) of the glory of God and deifying Holy Scripture, or else denying Holy Scripture and overstressing abstract psychological experience, with many consequences for the spiritual life.
Some interesting views on this matter will be highlighted.
a) Distinction between Ineffable Words and Created Words and Concepts
The basic scriptural passage which defines the difference between ineffable words and created words and concepts is the revelational excerpt from the Apostle Paul on this subject: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows — such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows — how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (2 Cor. 12:2-4).
The Apostle Paul attained to the experience of revelation and heard ineffable words, which it is impossible for a human being to use or speak. In his epistles, however, the Apostle conveyed his experience of uncreated grace in created words and concepts.
Examples from science can be used to interpret this situation. Through observation and experimentation every scientist arrives at a theory and subsequently he records this theory in words and technical terms. In order for this experience to be understood, however, the scientist’s own explanation is essential.
“Every science has its practice as well as its theory. The theory is a classification from the conceptual point of view of the function of the science, and is expressed in concepts and words. The concepts are expressed in words, which are recorded in monographs, books, drawings and calculations, so that they can serve the needs of others as well.
Usually, in order for someone to be able to use these books on a particular science, he has to have instructors. I think it is impossible for someone to become a doctor just by reading books on medicine and surgery. He must join a team of doctors, surgeons and so on, in order to acquire the theory of the science, but also the practice of the science. The same happens in all the sciences.
So a book cannot be the conveyor of science. The book is used sometimes to provide particular ‘reminders’, in order to remind the scientist of the main points of a science and its practice. This connection between scientist, book, live teaching and pupil also exists in the patristic perception of Holy Scripture.”
In the positive sciences, where experiments are performed by scientists located all over the world, everyone’s experience is the same. Every scientist who reads about the experiments of other researchers is able to verify and confirm them.
“When we engage in mathematics or chemistry or biology, the concepts and words that we use correspond to a certain reality. So if I am a biologist and someone has described something to me in a scientific journal, on the basis of the article that I read, I can repeat in my own laboratory what he saw. I can repeat his experiment and discover again what he discovered.
Thousands of biologists do this, so when they do these experiments and acquire knowledge, it is not like the situation among theologians, where each one says whatever comes into his head, including fantasies, and they do imaginary analyses and so on; it is not a gamble.
If serious people engaged in the positive sciences in the same way as theologians engage in theology, we would not have any positive sciences.”
What happens in the positive sciences happens in Orthodox theology, the difference being that the ineffable words are uncreated, whereas the words that convey the experience are created words and concepts. Discernment between ineffable-uncreated words and created words and concepts is significant for Orthodox theology. It is achieved by the energy of the Holy Spirit.
“When someone understands this distinction between ineffable words and words and concepts that are in the category of created things, he knows that the latter can never be merged or confused with ineffable words. These ineffable words are uncreated.
When someone understands that uncreated words (ineffable words) are in no way similar to the created words and concepts that we use in Holy Scripture, patristic theology and so on, it also becomes comprehensible to him that even the distinction between essence and energy in God, which is made with words, is not the result of a revelation.”
b) The Revelation of God through Ineffable Words
When someone who is glorified attains to revelational experience, he sees the uncreated Light. He is within the uncreated Light and ‘there’ no created words and concepts exist, no categories of human thought that are expressed and formulated through rational processes. The experience of glorification goes beyond all words and concepts. Subsequently, however, the experience of glorification creates divinely inspired concepts.
“In the experience of glorification God goes beyond concepts and in this experience meaning is surmounted. There are no concepts in this experience, but the outcome of this experience is the divinely inspired concepts which make up the Old and New Testaments.
Revelation goes beyond every concept and meaning, and is above words and understanding, because there is no similarity at all between God and the creation. Reason participates in the experience of revelation, but the actual glory of God transcends reason, which was created to understand created, not uncreated, things…
This experience, however, creates a divinely inspired state within man, as he has reached the vision of God and the concepts that he has acquired from this experience are divinely inspired, even though the experience is beyond any concept.”
In the course of glorification and the vision of Christ’s glory, words and concepts about Christ are not needed. Noetic prayer itself ceases.
When someone is at a lower stage of the spiritual life, words and concepts are needed for guidance. But when what is perfect — glorification — comes, created words, concepts and images are unnecessary.
“Since this experience transcends words and concepts, Christ says ‘You cannot bear…’ (John 16:12). That is to say, until now I have taught you with words that have meanings. So you have a conceptual knowledge concerning the mysteries of the glory and rule (vasileia) of God. This conceptual knowledge was conveyed in words, words accompanied by illumination of the nous, so they are comprehensible to human reason because of the illumination of the nous. In this case someone sees why these things are true…
When, however, someone is at the stage of illumination he cannot go any further. What lies beyond cannot be taught with words and concepts. So he who has reached this stage cannot ‘bear’ what lies beyond, because what lies beyond, which is the experience of glorification itself, transcends words and concepts.
These things cannot be taught with words and concepts, because the experience is no longer words and concepts. Words and concepts are created. Glorification, however, is the state in which the human being, according to grace of course, becomes uncreated, that is to say, god according to grace. Only in this state can he bear glorification itself.”
Although this is Orthodox teaching, in the Papal tradition the revelation of God is identified with created words and concepts.
“In the Papal tradition, which followed Augustine, the revelation is a revelation of concepts, and not only of concepts, but also of the words that accompany concepts.
Once someone identifies the revelation with the revelation of concepts and, going even further, with the spoken words that express concepts, we then have inspiration of Holy Scripture ‘to the letter’. This means that God dictated these texts and concepts to the authors of Holy Scriptures. If you pursue this line, the author of Holy Scripture is essentially not Moses, Elijah, Solomon and the rest, but God Himself. He is the real author of Holy Scripture.”
The outcome of this was that in the West the revelation of God was identified with Holy Scripture.
“Since the revelation is identified in the West with Holy Scripture, this means that God reveals words and concepts to humankind. So essentially the revelation is words and concepts, which means that the essence of theology is for someone to study concepts and terminology concerning God. There is no other revelation beyond concepts and words. So in this world we are left with the words of Holy Scripture and nothing more.
Western theology in the Middle Ages was led in this direction, and Holy Scripture was identified in this way with the revelation. So the revelation is the words of Holy Scripture.”
The Orthodox tradition, however, as mentioned already, stresses the truth that “words and concepts are about God” and “about the revelation”. They are not God Himself or the revelation itself.
“The Fathers of the Church refuse to identify God with the words and concepts of human thought.”
c) Conveying Ineffable-Uncreated Words by means of Created Words and Concepts
The theoumenoi, those who participate in glorification, convey this experience to the people in order to lead them to the experience of glorification. The created words and concepts that they use are not identical to the ineffable-uncreated words of the experience of glorification. Even in illumination and noetic prayer there are created words and concepts.
“The Fathers always used Gregory the Theologian as a classic example, Gregory the Theologian’s theological words, which make it clear that God goes beyond all words and concepts. I mean his statement that ‘It is impossible to express God and even more impossible to conceive Him.’ He does not accept that it is possible for man to express God, and understanding God it is even less possible. ‘Express’ and ‘conceive’ refer to what are called words and concepts. Thus we have words, and we have concepts conveyed by the words. Each word conveys one, two, three, fifteen concepts. There are expressions about God and concepts about God, and God goes beyond both words and concepts.”
We see this in Holy Scripture.
“Do we have anything else in Holy Scripture apart from words and concepts? Is there anything else in Holy Scripture? There is nothing else. It is all words and concepts. There is nothing that is not in a word, unless someone sees the odd comma or hyphen between the words, everything else in Holy Scripture is words. These words convey concepts. We have concepts and words, but we cannot attribute either words or concepts to God, because God transcends words and concepts.”
The holy Fathers have the same experience as the Prophets and Apostles, so in their writings they use created words and concepts which the Prophets and Apostles also used to enable them to convey the experience of glorification. However, because in their era heretics appeared who used philosophical terminology, the Fathers retained the same concepts and subsequently added to, or altered, the created words. From the point of view of level of knowledge, there is no difference between the words and concepts of the Apostles and those of the Fathers. The Fathers, without changing the concepts, simply added new words because of the heretical beliefs which were appearing.
“Now I would like to raise the following point: as there is nothing higher than the experience of glorification, and as the experience of glorification transcends words and concepts, and the words and concepts of Holy Scripture and the Fathers and the Councils have the same aim, is it ever possible for someone to say, from the epis-temological point of view, that the words of the Fathers are higher or lower than Holy Scripture? I am raising the issue of criterion.
From the point of view of the criterion of truth, Holy Scripture is an absolute criterion. There cannot be anything in the patristic tradition that disagrees with Holy Scripture. From the point of view of criteria, Holy Scripture is an absolute criterion.
From the point of view of level of knowledge can Holy Scripture differ from the words and concepts of the Fathers and Councils? No. Because what are the words of the Fathers? They are the words and concepts of Holy Scripture. When the Fathers teach, they teach Holy Scripture itself. They use the same words to render the same concepts.
The Fathers, however, add words, particular words, to the words and concepts of the Old Testament and the New Testament. But they do not add any concept that does not exist in Holy Scripture. They add words but they do not add concepts. The concepts are the same. They add words, they change words. The Fathers always inherit words and concepts from the past.
They have the experience that their predecessors had. As they have the same experience, they also use the same words and concepts. Then, depending on circumstances, when new heresies and new needs arise, they add words to the existing words, in order to express the same concepts. They do not add new concepts. They use new words for the sake of clarity against specific heresies. The Holy Spirit illumines the Fathers depending on the circumstances, as they have the experience of illumination, and in certain cases also of glorification. They are illumined and always find new words to render the same concepts. The concepts do not change, the words change.”
Created words and concepts that are inspired by God lead to salvation and are not the same as the methodology of philosophy. This is where the difference between the Fathers and heretics lies.
The Arians said that the Word Who appeared to the Prophets was created. The Fathers objected, from their experience, that the Word is uncreated and therefore has the same essence as the Father. So they used the term ‘coessential’ (homoousios).
The term ‘coessential’ is the word that helps us to understand the subject rationally, but it does not abolish the concept. Its aim is to lead us to glorification. What is uncreated can never be identified with the concept, because that would be idolatry.
“For this reason the Fathers say that anyone who identifies concepts, texts or created meanings with uncreated things is an idolater. It is idolatry to identify God with some idea that we have about God within ourselves. We think that our idea about God is God. When we identify our idea with God, idolatry begins. This is an idol.”
The holy Fathers believed that there was no similarity between uncreated and created things, and consequently there was no similarity between ineffable-uncreated words and created words and concepts. This is why they did not accept metaphysics. Even when God is described, He is indescribable.
Only someone who is in the state of purification and illumination perceives the meaning of created words. By contrast, “The concepts and words used for God by someone who is not in the state of purification and illumination are clearly idolatrous and do not correspond to reality.”
The aim of created words, concepts and images in Holy Scripture, as well as in patristic and conciliar texts, is to cure man by means of purification and illumination and to lead him to theosis, to the experience of glorification.
“The words of Holy Scripture, the texts and concepts used in Holy Scripture, are not aimed at conveying concepts and words identical to the reality called God. The aim of the concepts and words of Holy Scripture is to lead man to purification, illumination and glorification, as the ascetic Fathers, in particular, teach, in order that he may acquire knowledge, prophecy. As the Apostle Paul says, then everything is abolished and the only thing that remains is love, which is freedom.”
When man reaches glorification, the words about uncreated things are abolished, but not the concepts of created things and the human nature of Christ.
“The expressions, concepts and words about God have one single aim: to cure man, which is achieved when he progresses from illumination to glorification.
The strange thing about the experience of glorification is that in the experience of glorification, all concepts — not all concepts, but all concepts about God — come to an end, when someone faces the reality of what is uncreated, uncreated reality. Concepts of created things are not done away with, of course, nor concepts of Christ’s human nature. The concepts that come to an end are those concerning uncreated things.”
Heretics, however, never understood this fundamental Orthodox principle. They used created words and concepts in a different way and for a different purpose. They used them to philosophise about them.
“The heretics attempted to use created words to produce philosophical concepts, whereas the created words of Holy Scripture and the Tradition are not intended to convey philosophical concepts about God, so that man can acquire knowledge of God by means of reason. No, that is not the aim.
Heretics attempt to remove the distinction between glorification and illumination, so concepts are used in order to identify understanding with glorification. They believe that through reflection they have arrived at the pinnacle of knowledge about God, so they know better than those who have reached glorification.”
This perception is the source of speculation in theology, and it leads in the end to scholasticism.
d) From Created Words to Ineffable Words
Holy Scripture, the dogmas of the Church and the patristic texts are full of created words and concepts, for the purpose of leading man to glorification.
The Christian, under the guidance of Holy Scripture, the dogmas and the patristic tradition, passes through the stage of purification and subsequently ascends to the stage of illumination, which is the stage of noetic prayer in the heart. At this stage created words and concepts still exist and prayer is prayed with them. When, however, the Christian reaches glorification, created words and concepts are abolished.
“In the experience of enlightenment or illumination there are certainly concepts and words. So dogma is also a guide at this stage. However, when someone arrives at glorification, words and concepts cease, and for this reason dogma too ceases. This means that dogma for Orthodox theology has a temporary, not a permanent, character.”
The Holy Spirit Himself prays within us with created words and concepts. In glorification, however, even these come to an end.
“Concepts are used in the experience of illumination, because man’s illumination actually consists of words and concepts. So the aim of theology is to be abolished. Theology itself is abolished, because theology is the whole system of concepts and words that we use about God. So theology cannot have a philosophical aim. We cannot be occupied with God as though God were an object of philosophical investigation. This is ruled out in the Orthodox tradition. For this reason the Fathers reject the philosophical approach to theology.”
Through noetic prayer someone knows God in part, but real knowledge is acquired in divine vision, in uncreated words, because God goes beyond words and concepts.
“Holy Scripture is full of words and concepts. Prayer consists of spoken words and concepts. But when someone reaches glorification, these sayings and concepts about God are abolished. Why? Because God transcends all words and concepts. There is no saying or concept that can express God, or give someone an understanding of God, because God goes beyond all words and concepts. So man can never know God with his reason. Man can know God through illumination, only as a gift of the Holy Spirit, because he is in the state of illumination.”
At the stages of purification and illumination, the words and concepts of Holy Scripture and the Fathers of the Church are necessary. They are, however, superseded in glorification.
“Created words are used in the first stages of perfection, but they are not absolute, in the sense that created words are used so that someone can be cured by means of these created words, under the guidance of a spiritual father, by Holy Scripture, by the writings of the Fathers of the Church and by the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. Once he reaches the stage of glorification, however, this experience of glorification goes beyond words and concepts, because he arrives at ineffable words.
As he has arrived at ineffable words, this means that he has risen above Holy Scripture in what he knows about God. This does not mean that he has higher knowledge than Holy Scripture. It means that he has the same experience as the Prophets and Apostles and saints of the Church. From the point of view of glorification, he has the same experience. He may not have reached the same level of the experience, because he may have illumination and vision, but may not have continuous vision, but he has experience of God.”
Because the dogmas act as medicines, when man is cured, when he arrives at glorification, they are unnecessary, as then man sees God, and definitions about God are not needed.
“We have Christ in front of us. Are we going to put words and concepts in between us? These will cease to exist in the experience of glorification. Even noetic prayer is unnecessary, as we have God Himself before us.”
This means that glorification is participation in the glorifying energy of God, in which created words and concepts do not exist.
“Only the energy can be shared, and this energy of God transcends concepts and words. There are no concepts and words about the energies of God. We do not use these words and concepts to understand God, but to be united with God.”
The fact that created words and concepts are transcended does not mean that they are abolished or abandoned by other Christians, as they are the path to being cured and glorification. They are divinely inspired words and concepts, which confirm the experience of glorification.
“In glorification Holy Scripture, theology and dogma are abolished. This is the purpose of Holy Scripture and dogma. In what sense? They constantly remain for those who tread the path of purification and illumination. They also always remain in the state of glorification. The one who is glorified goes beyond these concepts and words and sees the uncreated reality, which has no similarity at all with them.
This does not mean, however, that these words and concepts can be abandoned, because, if someone does not proceed by means of these words and concepts, by means of purification and exertion, he will not reach glorification. That is the problem. These are the indispensable medicines to enable someone to reach glorification.”
Someone who is glorified understands the difference between uncreated and created reality.
“When we say that Holy Scripture and dogma will be abolished in the vision of God, we do not mean that they will not be used. We mean the following: someone who reaches this experience understands the text of Holy Scripture and sees that these words and concepts that are in Holy Scripture do not correspond to the reality, that which is uncreated.”
“The experience of Pentecost is completely unconnected with rational comprehension. Why? Because the experience goes beyond words and concepts. It transcends concepts and words.”
—Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos: Empirical Dogmatics, Volume 1 (pgs 251-263)