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TOCITW13. Question: How can theology be combined with philosophy? What are the points they have in common, the points of contact, and what are the differences? Can we say that classical philosophy and the writings of the holy Fathers are two methods of acquiring knowledge, one empirical and noetic, and the other rational?

Answer: In the fourteenth century, in the discussion between St Gregory Palamas and Barlaam, this was one of the issues taised.

Barlaam said that there was one single form of knowledge. In other words, the philosophers and the Prophets acquired knowledge of God in the same way. He even asserted that the philosophers were superior to the Prophets because their knowledge was connected with the reason, which is the noblest element of man’s being. So the philosophers acquired knowledge of God through their rational faculty, as opposed to the Prophets, who, according to his assertion, saw visions with their imagination, independently of their reason. For that reason he said that the knowledge of God possessed by the Prophets was inferior to that of the philosophers.

St. Gregory Palamas responded to this point. He said that the Prophets are superior to the philosophers, because man has nous and reason. The Prophets beheld God with their nous, not with their imagination, as their nous was illuminated by divine grace, whereas the philosophers speculated with their reason. The nous, not the rational faculty, is the appropriate organ for seeing God. The work of the rational faculty is to be aware of the surrounding world; the work of the nous is to have uninterrupted remembrance of God, and at times it even ascends to the vision of God. This explains why the Apostles had no knowledge at all of philosophy and yet they surpassed the philosophers in knowledge of God. Man’s discovery of things through his reason, as in science and philosophy, is not the same as the revelation of God in his heart. That is why Christ said: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8), and not “Blessed are the philosophers, who will see God with their reason.”

There is a difference between theology and philosophy, which is why St Gregory the Theologian said that the Apostles spoke about God like fishermen and not like Aristotle. In other words, they spoke about God through the experience of Pentecost, and not through philosophical knowledge. Something that philosophers and theologians evidently have in common is how they express themselves. God-seeing theologians beheld God and, in order to express the experience they had acquired, they used terms current in their era, although they gave them a different meaning.

In spite of the difference between philosophy and theology, there is no need for any conflict, because they function at different levels of knowledge.

St Gregory the Theologian and St Basil the Great studied ancient Greek philosophy in Athens. St Gregory of Nyssa was also very familiar with the philosophy of his age. The same applies to other Fathers of the Church, including, among others, St Maximus the Confessor and St Gregory Palamas.

As for St Gregory Palamas, we know that when he was a student at the University of Constantinople, he had an excellent knowledge of Aristotelian philosophy. After his studies he was summoned before the Governor and the Senate of the Empire to expound Aristotle’s views. He spoke so well that his teacher said that, if Aristotle himself had been present, he would have praised him. Subsequently, however, he abandoned all worldly knowledge and his career, and went to the Holy Mountain, where he prayed continuously: “Lighten my darkness.” He did not mean the darkness of his rational faculty, because he knew Aristotle very well, but the darkness of his nous and heart. Afterwards he reached theoria of God. He saw the All-Holy Virgin, he saw Christ, St John the Theologian and, on many occasions, the uncreated Light.

The point I want to make is that the Fathers of the Church studied ancient Greek philosophy. They saw the ontological and cosmological problems posed by the philosophers, including, for instance, the ontological question of what being is, where being is,, and what God is, and the cosmological question of what the world is, who created the world, why there is evil in the world, and why death exists.

As we know, every philosopher provided his own answers. The answers given by the pre-Socratic philosophers, the Ionic natural philosophers, Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoic philosophers and the Neoplatonic philosophers were all different.

The Fathers of the Church studied these ontological and cosmological questions raised by the ancient philosophers. They noted their questions, rejected their answers, and to their questions they gave their own answers drawn from the revelation that they had received, as His Eminence Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon writes.

So we can speak about an encounter between Hellenism and Christianity. The holy Fathers adopted terms from ancient Greek philosophy and gave them new content. For instance, the Neoplatonic philosophers spoke about ecstasy’, in the sense of the soul’s departure from the body, but the Fathers, although they used the term ‘ecstasy’ gave it another meaning, namely, that the nous departs from the carnal and bodily mentality and enters the heart.

The same happened with the term ‘person’. When the ancient Greeks spoke about the person, they meant the mask that actors put on to play a part. Some theologians in the early Church used the notion of the person wrongly, such as Sabellius, who, when he spoke about the Triune God, meant three revelations of the one God: in the Old Testament, in the New Testament and in the life of the Church. St Basil the Great, however, adopted the term ‘person’ and linked it with the hypostasis, thus giving it ontological content. According to the Fathers, therefore, ‘person’ means the essence together with the hypostatic properties.

This is how we should work today. We should not reject philosophy, but we should not say that philosophy is the same as theology. Nor can we say that philosophy saves. Philosophy is the so-called ‘seminal word’, but theology goes beyond philosophy. Theology uses philosophical terms to express the experience of revelation, but it is not philosophy and speculation.

I know that there are some Western theologians who cannot see all these details and subtle analyses, so they misinterpret things. They say, for instance, that St Diony-sius the Areopagite is a Neoplatonist because he uses some Neoplatonic terms, whereas he is not a Neoplatonist at all, for the following simple reason.

Plato asserted that man’s soul, which was previously in the uncreated world of ideas before being enclosed in the body, recollects its previous life, and so it wishes to return to where it was before. This is referred to as Platonic eros (intense longing). In other words, God does not have eros for man, but man for God, so eros is a human weakness, because man feels that he is lacking something. God has fullness, so He does not have eros. Also, Aristotle asserted that God is the prime unmoved mover: God does not move but He moves things. So the two basic principles of classical metaphysics are that God does not have love {eros) and He does not move.

In the writings of St Dionysius the Areopagite, as St Maximus the Confessor interprets them, it says that God is love {eros) and beloved, and as love He moves towards man, and as beloved He draws towards Himself everything that is receptive of love. Here God is described as having love for man and as moving towards man, while at the same time causing those who are receptive of love to move towards Himself. This overturns classical metaphysics and Neoplatonism.

On these two points, among others, the difference between the ancient philosophers and the Fathers of the Church is absolutely clear. We should bear this in mind every time we study the relationship between theology and philosophy, and also between theologians and philosophers.

— Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos.

The Orthodox Church in the World. Part 2 Russia. Discussion after the Talk