Now this phrase ‘before the ages’ is highly significant, because the ages and time are not the same. The Fathers make a distinction between the ages and time, even though they did not know modern physics. In physics, time as understood in the past no longer exists. In the past, time was measured by the movement of the earth relative to the sun and the moon. But now, our understanding of time has changed drastically.
But what matters to us is that the Fathers clearly distinguish between the ages and time. So the Fathers say that when God created the world, He first created the ages, then the angels, and afterwards both this world and time. In other words, the Fathers knew that time was a dimension of a particular aspect of the created universe, because the ages were the first creation to be created and not time. Time was created later on by God.
The main difference between the ages and time is that in time one event is followed in turn by another, while in the ages events do not necessarily follow one another. Instead, events and reality coexist in such a way that what happens is not necessarily entangled in the process of succession. But since man exists within time, his experience is limited to alternating states. Existence without this process of succession is not within man’s experience, but there is one exception. He can acquire this experience in the experience of theosis, because during theosis time is no longer in effect.
Only someone who has reached theosis has experienced a way of being that transcends existence, that transcends time, that transcends the ages, that transcends space, that transcends reason, and so forth. Someone in a state of theosis experiences the uncreated, but still does not know epistemologically what this uncreated reality is, because the uncreated epistemologically remains a mystery to the person in a state of theosis. In other words, even when God reveals Himself to someone who has reached theosis, God remains a Mystery. Even if someone perceives God with his nous, reason, senses and body, God nevertheless remains a Mystery, since He remains outside the boundaries and means of human knowledge.
And this is the case because human knowledge is based on similarity and difference, but there is no similarity between the created and the uncreated realms. For example, if on the one hand we see an elephant, but do not know anything about elephants, the elephant before us does not resemble anything else. It is simply different from other animals. If we later see two elephants, we will say, “Hey, these two look alike.” But if we examine them more carefully and discover that one elephant is male while the other one is female, then we will be able to see that they differ from one another in certain parts of the body. Yet in spite of these differences, they possess such an overall similarity that we can return to talking about elephants and place them in the same category with other elephants.
When someone experiences theosis, on the other hand, he can recognize a difference, but he cannot find a similarity with anything. Nevertheless, there is a difference. He sees something that he has never seen before in this life, but there is no similarity between what has been revealed to him and what he already knows. Why is this the case? Because the glory of God is different from everything created that he has observed within the created realm. It is different, but it is also utterly unlike anything known within creation. Why is it not similar to anything? It is not similar to anything, because it does not have color, it cannot be measured, it is not light, it is not darkness, it is not big, it is not small, it does not have a shape, it does not have a form.
This is the reason why the Fathers speak about the glory of God being like something without shape or form. Of course, to say that it is without form is to offer a rebuttal to the Platonists, since the Platonists believed in the existence of a world of forms. But when the Fathers say that the glory of God is without form, this means that it has nothing to do with Plato’s conceptual world. Whenever the Fathers describe the glory of God as being without shape or form and whenever they refer to this absence of shape and form, they are making a direct assault on the opinions of Plato and Aristotle and on philosophy in general. This means that Patristic theology completely avoids those categories that belong to philosophical ways of thinking.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with someone studying philosophy as long as he rejects philosophy’s teachings on the existence and nature of God. After all, philosophy trains the human mind. This is what all the hesychastic Fathers say, including Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nyssa, the Church Father whose ability to reason like a philosopher is unsurpassed. And if you read St. Dionysios the Areopagite, you will see that he even follows this same line of thought. So we can conclude that there is nothing wrong with someone spending his time with philosophy in order to train his mind, but it is sheer stupidity to accept the teachings of philosophy when it comes to theological subjects.
—Protopresbyter John S. Romanides (Patristic Theology: The University Lectures)
Posted with the kind permission of Protopresbyter Peter Heers.