Apophatic, Dogma, Elder Sophrony of Essex, Empirical Dogmatics, illumination, Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Philosophy, Protopresbyter George Florovsky, Protopresbyter George Metallinos, Protopresbyter John Romanides, Protopresbyter John S. Romanides, Purification, Romanides, St. Dionysios the Areopagite, St. Gregory Palamas, Theoria, Theosis
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.”
—Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos. Empirical Dogmatics