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Empirical Dogmatics, Volume 1. By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

Definition of Dogma

Empirical DogmaticsDogmas are the pronouncements of the holy Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils, when they confronted heretical teachings that were altering the revealed truth. First there was a heretical doctrine about Christ, or the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Triune God in general, or concerning the theology of the Persons of the Holy Trinity and the divine Economy, which is the incarnation of the Son and Word of God. Then the holy Fathers would meet in Local and Ecumenical Councils and formulate definitions of the Orthodox faith.

 The central Person discussed by the holy Fathers was Christ, in Whom the divine and human nature were united without change, confusion, separation or division. The holy Fathers did not have abstract philosophical discussions about the Holy Trinity.

 “They always discussed this particular Person Who appeared to the Prophets and revealed the Father within Himself in the Holy Spirit. So they did not discuss the dogma of the Holy Trinity in an abstract way, but discussed this specific Person in the Old Testament Who was revealed to the Prophets and afterwards in the flesh to the Apostles.”

 The demarcation of the revelation is called dogma. Essentially, however, dogma shows Christ revealed in glory. It is an expression of the divine manifestations (theophanies) in both the Old and New Testaments. Dogma is not a simple external confession of faith, but a formulation of revelatory truth. And the holy Fathers had a special reason for undertaking this, because heretics had doubts about the revelation. There is, therefore, a difference between dogma and interpretation.

 “For the Fathers of the Church, when we refer to the dogma of the Holy Trinity, we mean the theophanies. It is not a matter of ‘three hypostases’, ‘one essence’, homoousios’ or any of these things, which are conceptual criteria against the heretics. When the Fathers interpreted the Holy Trinity they did not use those terms. They are for heretics.

 When they teach within the Church (in sermons for Christians), they give interpretations. The Holy Trinity means the theophanies of the Old Testament. Why do we chant about the revelation of the Holy Trinity at the Baptism of Christ? Because it was revealed to John the Baptist that Christ is the Angel of the Lord of the Old Testament; that when we see Christ we see the Father, in the Holy Spirit.”

 It follows that dogmas are used as medicines for the spiritually sick, so that they may be cured.

 “Dogma and theology are medicines. When we become well, we stop taking medicines. We take medicines when we are ill. Man is ill because he is not in a position to see God. He is not ready, because he does not have love. The fact that he does not have love means that he is ill.”

 In the same way as a patient takes medicines in order to be cured and become well, so someone who is spiritually sick uses medicines so as to be cured and attain to glorification. When he reaches glorification, of course, the dogma-medicines are inadequate. They are not abolished by the Church, because they will be needed by others who are sick, but they are insufficient and unnecessary for someone who arrives at glorification and sees the glory of God.

 “Dogmas are not a permanent state. They are medicines, and the purpose of medicines is to be done away with, once the patient has been cured. When we are cured we no longer need medicines. So dogmas exist as long as we do not see Christ in glory. Once we see Christ in glory, dogma is abolished. What are the dogmas about? They concern Christology and the Holy Trinity. What need is there for words and concepts about the incarnation and the Holy Trinity, when we see Christ as Holy Trinity and incarnation?”

 Of course, the dogmas of the Ecumenical Councils are indispensable even for the glorified, because through these dogmas revealed truth is defined.

 b) Dogma and Mystery

 It is essential to make a distinction between dogma and mystery. The mystery of the Holy Trinity is experienced, to the extent that this is possible, by the glorified human being and is different from the dogma, which is the rational formulation concerning the mystery of the Holy Trinity or the revelation. This distinction is fundamental to Orthodox theology.

 “God is always a mystery. The mystery of the Holy Trinity must be separated from the dogma of the Holy Trinity. The dogma is not the same as the mystery.”

This means that the dogma can be understood rationally, but not the mystery. There is confusion on this issue in some contemporary theologians and a serious problem arises. For instance, when we speak about the Holy Trinity, we are referring to the dogma, the terminology concerning the Holy Trinity, as formulated by the holy Fathers of the Church (essence, hypostases, hypostatic property, and so on) and not to the mystery of the Holy Trinity. We cannot speak about “the mystery of the Holy Trinity”, which is inconceivable to human reason, but we can speak about “the dogma concerning the mystery of the Holy Trinity”. 

“One needs clearly to distinguish the dogma from the mystery. Understanding the mystery (rationally), which is impossible, is completely different from understanding the dogma, which is possible. 

There is so much confusion in recent theology, under the influence of Russian theology, that anyone would think that an expert on dogmatics or a theologian of the Orthodox Church is someone who reflects deeply and immerses himself in the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and attempts to put it into words. The patristic tradition has absolutely no connection with this sort of perception of theology.”

The names and concepts that a God-seeing saint formulates when necessary are one thing and the experience that he has acquired of this reality is another.

“What is important is this perception of the relationship that names and concepts have with reality. The mystery remains a mystery. We do not put the mystery into words, but the dogma about the mystery. We speak about the dogma about the mystery of the Holy Trinity; not about the mystery of the Holy Trinity.”

The same can be said of the distinction between Holy Scripture and God. Holy Scripture consists of the words and concepts expressing the experience of the mystery of God, and these words and concepts are not identical to God. God is not identified with the words and concepts, as will be emphasised in another part of this book. Identifying God with them leads to idolatry.

“For this reason you must have a firm grasp of this distinction between the mystery and the dogma. They are not the same thing, because theology, dogma and noetic prayer will be abolished: they are temporary in character. It is idolatry for us to identify God with words and concepts about Him. From this point of view, you can take the existentialism of certain (at least in my opinion) pseudo-theologians and throw them all into the waste paper bin. Because the only correct existential philosophy from the Orthodox point of view is the atheistic one and not the theistic.”

Even this viewpoint, that we can understand dogma, ought to be interpreted from the perspective that we can have a rational understanding of the purpose, origin and history of the dogma, but not of the dogma in itself or the spiritual meaning it conveys.

“To say that we understand dogmas is foolishness. No one understands the dogma of the Holy Trinity, because the dogma of the Holy Trinity is not intended to be understood. Anyone who gives the impression that he understands the dogma of the Holy Trinity is a fraud. This is the worst deception.

It is possible to understand the purpose of the dogma, its origin and its history. But it is impossible for someone to understand the dogma itself, because understanding the dogma means understanding the mystery. The dogma and the mystery are different things. They must never be confused.

Dogma exists as man’s guide. It is a signpost that shows him where he ought to be going. When, however, he reaches his destination, it is done away with. For that reason, dogma is a guide for those who are passing through purification, and carries on being a guide for those who continue in illumination. It is a guide and nothing more. But those who are at the stage of illumination know that one day dogma will be abolished.

When someone reaches glorification, dogma is abolished. Dogma ceases to exist. Noetic prayer itself stops. Although the Spirit of God prays within man with psalms, hymns or phrases — the Spirit Himself prays with human words within man — when man attains to glorification even this noetic prayer of the Holy Spirit ceases.

This is what the Apostle Paul says: ‘When that which is perfect comes, then prophecies will cease,’ in other words, theology will come to an end; ‘tongues will cease,’ that is, the various kinds of noetic prayer will stop; and ‘knowledge will vanish away,’ (cf. 1 Cor. 13:8-13), in other words, what are nowadays called dogmas and theology. All these things come to an end in glorification.

Certainly, when someone returns from glorification, when he ceases to have the vision of God, he continues praying once again with dogmas and the Spirit again prays within him as before. In this life the state of glorification is not permanent.”

Even when God is revealed to man, He still remains a mystery. Man knows from experience that God exists, but he does not know ‘how’ He exists.

“Neither the incarnation nor the dogma of the Holy Trinity can be understood. For that reason, even when God is revealed, then especially, He remains a mystery. The human nous cannot penetrate this mystery of uncreatedness, and how what is uncreated took flesh and is united with human nature. We only know, because it is clear from the experience of Pentecost and the Transfiguration and from St John the Forerunner’s experience of glorification at the Baptism, which is a revelation, the supreme revelation, of the Holy Trinity; that God remains a mystery.

 As this is so, it is nonsensical for us sit there asserting, like the Protestants and the Franks, that as time passes we have a deeper understanding of the dogmas of the Church. What does a deeper understanding mean, when, in the experience of glorification, of Pentecost, dogma has been abolished and the concepts and words that constitute dogmas have been done away with? The experience of glorification is not dogma. It is higher than dogma. Dogma is the expression of the mystery, but expressing the mystery is not the same as comprehending the mystery, because ‘It is impossible to express God and even more impossible to conceive Him.’ That is the end of the matter.”

c) Dogma as an Expression of Experience and a Guide to Experience

 Dogma was not formulated by philosophers, moralists or conservatives in order to restrain people, but by holy Fathers, who had experience of the uncreated glory of God. It was drawn up in order to deal with heretics and to guide the faithful to glorification. Dogma, therefore, is closely linked with the experience of glorification of the God-seeing saints.

 The foundation of dogma is the experience of the saints. By accepting the dogmas and being in contact with glorified saints and their writings, we inherit their experience and not simply their words and ‘.he decisions that they laid down.

 “The interpretative method of the Fathers is not drawn only from books that they read. It also comes from their experience. When they speak about dogmas, they not only interpret texts but also speak from their experience, like an astronomer who, when he teaches, not only speaks from books about astronomy, but also looks through the telescope and corroborates with the telescope what is written in the books. In fact the telescope is more important than the books. Similarly in patristic theology, the nous of those who are illumined is even more important than books. When the nous is in the state of illumination it is like the astronomer who looks through the telescope. This is the experience of dogma. We have not only inherited the dogma. There is also the experience of dogma. The same happens with heretics. When Arius or Nestorius make senseless statements, they are not only speaking from books. They are also speaking from their (mistaken) experience — because dogma produces experience — in the same way as any modern scientist speaks from his experience.”

 The holy Fathers formulated the experience of glorification and, since they had the same revelation, when they met in Ecumenical Councils they were in agreement on the wording as well.

 “In the years when the dogmas were being formulated, the Fathers’ experience was identical. So when the Fathers spoke from their own experience, they could easily reach agreement on putting it into words. It was easy. There was no difficulty.

 Where did the difficulty lie? It was not formulating the dogma that was difficult, but formulating it in such a way that it could not be interpreted in a heretical manner. That was the Fathers’ problem.”

 The fact that the dogmas are the formulation of the saints’ experience of glorification is one aspect of this issue. The other aspect is that the dogmas lead those who accept them to glorification, and become their own experience.

 “Since the aim of theology is purification and illumination of the nous, and dogma is the expression of this experience of glorification, dogma is infallible in the Orthodox Church, because it is the expression of the experience of glorification of the Prophets, Apostles and Fathers of the Church.

 However, we do not know the dogma that is the expression of the experience of glorification only as dogma. We also know it as the experience of the saints of the Church, or of anyone who reaches the same experience of glorification. We have dogma that is an expression of the experience of glorification, and after that we have dogma that becomes experience for those who reach glorification.”

 Consequently dogma is the expression of the experience of glorification and the guide towards glorification.

 “Nothing else can be called theology from the Orthodox point of view. The only thing that can be called dogma in the Orthodox tradition is the expression of the experience of glorification. This dogma, this expression, is also the guide to the experience. Exactly the same happens in the positive sciences, where previous experience, description and expression lead to the repetition of the experience by students. This cycle that we have in the positive sciences is the same cycle that we have in the patristic tradition.”

 This means that Orthodox theology forms a circle: it starts from the revelation granted to the God-seers, then this experience of the vision of God is put into words, as far as this is humanly possible, in order to guide those who accept it to an experience of the revelation. It is in this sense that we say that dogmas are closely linked with man’s cure.

 “This is the essence of Orthodox dogmatic teaching. All the Orthodox dogmas flow from this experience, because this is the revelation. They flow from this experience and their aim is to lead man to this experience. We begin with this experience and we end with this experience.

 Orthodox theology, therefore, is circular in form. Wherever you touch the circle, you are always on the circle. We begin and end with this diagnosis and treatment. So, what is the criterion of Orthodoxy? It is not dogma as a formality, a matter of saying, ‘I believe in one God, Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…’ and the rest, or reciting all the dogmas one after the other, or talking about the First, Second, Third etc. Ecumenical Councils…

 What is the criterion of Orthodoxy? It is the teaching that correctly diagnoses man’s state, applies the correct treatment and leads him from purification to illumination, and from illumination to glorification. This is the criterion of Orthodox dogma. The aim of Orthodox dogma is to cure people and to safeguard the framework within which this cure takes place.”

 Thus the purpose of the dogmas is not simply to be written in books and shut up in libraries, but to become personal experience, to be lived. This actually happens in all the sciences, including medicine. We study medical science in order to heal the sick. We accept the dogmas intellectually, so that later they will become experience.

 “Someone who is glorified, who has the gift of discernment of spirits, is in the state of theoria (vision) and prayer works by a single thought

 within his heart. He has the truth in his possession. This truth will set him free. Not the dogmatic truth that we set up in our cupboard when we venerate Orthodox dogmas: that is not the truth that saves.

 We believe that we have the dogmas — the First Ecumenical Council teaches…., the Second…, the Third… and so on. These are the dogmatic teachings of the Church. And we have the idea that the truth will save us, in the sense that we ought to accept all the dogmas of the Ecumenical Councils as something outside ourselves, so that we can be free and have salvation. This is a Frankish perception of how we should accept dogmas.

 In the Orthodox faith — if you want, you will find many references to this in St Symeon the New Theologian — dogma ought to be lived. Dogma ought to be experience. Dogma should be learnt empirically. Initially we accept dogma intellectually, like a lesson, and once we have accepted it, the lesson ought to be converted into experience. Dogma must become experience.

 This is precisely what happens in the positive sciences. I am studying medicine. I take the first classes in the first year, as a first-year student. I study one thing and another, the preliminaries. Then I reach the point of choosing a specialism, to become a pathologist, for instance, and of course there will be preparatory work beforehand. To become a doctor I have to go and work in a hospital. I need practice, and the dogmas of medical science have to become experiences. Once they become experiences, I am a doctor. It is not simply a matter of accepting the dogmas: the dogmas must become experiences. And when the dogmas become experiences, one becomes a theologian and a spiritual physician, and is correctly placed within the framework of the Church and the theological science of therapeutic treatment.”

 “St Symeon the New Theologian says it clearly. He says it word for word: experience-dogma-experience. He uses those words.”

 In the normal way the clergy, particularly the bishops, ought to know the truths of the Church empirically. The early Church was very careful on this point. However, if they did not find clergy with personal experience of Pentecost to become bishops, they at least sought out clergy who knew the Church’s dogmas and could use them to guide the flock.

 “If we turn to the era of St Symeon the New Theologian, he tells us that, as it was not easy to find prospective bishops who had made the dogmas their own experiences, the ‘statement of Orthodoxy’ was brought in. This is the three confessions of faith that the bishop now makes at his consecration. He gives an interpretation of the Creed and then he is consecrated.

 St Symeon the New Theologian says that, since the Metropolitans and Patriarchs could not find people who had made the dogmas their own experiences, they found people who promised to preserve the dogmas unadulterated, that is to say, to keep the formulation of the dogmas, the dogmatic teaching, unaltered, together with the Canons, so that every Christian could be sure that he had a faithful chief shepherd, who would lead the more advanced to higher things, which means theoria.

 Well, this is the situation. The bishop, however, knew the purpose of dogma, even if he had not reached theoria or glorification. And this situation came about because there was a bishop in every village. Then we have the tradition that in every village there was also a monastery. So dogma as experience existed next to the parish.”

 For various reasons this tradition had been lost in the era of St Symeon the New Theologian. Through his words and writings he “ought about a revolution in ecclesiastical life, because he showed how dogma becomes experience, and how dogma originates from revelational experience.

“He himself explains that, on account of persecutions, repeated persecutions, and heresies, the Church had reached a point where the bishops, patriarchs, metropolitans of the time were searching for people with experience of dogma — the dogma that guides people to pass through purification and reach illumination, unceasing remembrance of God, at which point these guiding values are transformed into experience — and they could not find anyone.

For that reason they chose and consecrated as bishops people who, on the one hand, had no great zeal for things above, for heavenly things, for practising extreme asceticism in order to achieve noetic prayer, but neither did they have any downward tendency or inclination. They were good men. And because they were good men, they chose them and consecrated them as bishops. It was then that the tradition was introduced at the consecration of giving a confession of faith, which continues to this day.

 When the bishop is consecrated he says the Creed, he gives an interpretation of the Creed and promises to keep the dogmas and the Canons. With this promise that he will preserve these forms, they consecrate him as a bishop. In this way the Church ensured the existence of teachers who promised until death that they would preserve and keep these dogmas unadulterated, so that when people had been catechised by such a bishop, they could go to a monastery, if they were zealous, to turn these dogmas into life.”

It follows that dogmas are not a matter of speculation, but an expression of the mystery of the Church. The view that theology is conjecture, which the holy Fathers changed into dogma, is alien to the Orthodox tradition.

“I recently read a study which said that the procession of the Holy Spirit, until the era of St Photios, was pure speculation. In other words, the author imagines that the Fathers speculated about the procession of the Holy Spirit and that it had not become a dogma. Then under St Photios it becomes a dogma instead of a matter of conjecture, at which point speculation ceases, because now we have a dogma. For eight centuries we speculated and now we have created a dogma.

 The Protestants and the Anglicans accuse us of taking a matter of conjecture and elevating it to the status of a dogma, thus causing schism. Because the fact that it was previously a matter of speculation means that someone could say that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and from the Son, and he was not a heretic. Or only from the Father, and again he was not a heretic. And now he is a heretic, because this is what the Eighth Ecumenical Council decided.”

But such views are not Orthodox and patristic.

Met Hierotheos_antiqued