As early as the Old Testament era, the Prophet Jeremiah had spoken prophetically of a new Covenant with mankind that the Lord was going to provide. It would differ greatly from the Old Covenant, because it was to have the very Son of the living God as its Guarantor (Hebr.7:22, 9:15-17), and it was to be sealed with His death, by the spilling of His precious and most holy Blood (Luke 22:20). This Covenant was not going to be written on stone slabs or paper, but in the hearts of His faithful – the new, spiritual Israel. In the Lord’s reborn people, as the Apostle Paul had written: “but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter […].” (Rom.2:29) God was going to imprint His will inside their hearts and He would fill them with knowledge of Him (theognosy), since there would be no need for one to motivate the other to know the Lord. They would be acquiring that knowledge intimately and mystically.
As prophesied by Jeremiah: “Behold, days are coming, quoth the Lord, and I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Iouda. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by their hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, because they did not abide in my covenant, and I was unconcerned for them, quoth the Lord, because this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, quoth the Lord. Giving I will give my laws in their mind, and I will write them on their hearts, and I will become a god to them, and they shall become a people to me. And they shall not teach, each his fellow citizen and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” because they shall all know me, from their small even to their great, because I will be gracious regarding their injustices, and remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 38/31:31-34)
Jesus Himself had explicitly taught that this was to be realized by the Holy Spirit – the third Person of the Holy Trinity – with His direct teaching in the hearts of the faithful: ” “These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” (John 14:25-26) Also: “However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. (John 16:13)
John the Apostle mentions : “But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him. (1 John 2:27)
But: just because these are written and we read them nowadays, does that mean we have also made them our acquisitions? The answer is No, if we want to be honest. We can verify this, from what the saints themselves mention – having had genuine experience of enlightenment and deification themselves. A genuine experience of the Pentecost.
What Patristic literature maintains is that after the Fall, when man chose to deify himself through disobedience and not become deified through obedience, he forfeited the Holy Spirit and his mind became clouded. Thereafter, he remained far away from the experiential knowledge of God. What man needed was the cleansing of human nature, illumination and deification, in order for his ancient beauty to be restored. This was possible to be attained, from the moment that the Logos of God became flesh, taking on our own nature – the way it was before the Fall.
Further along, we will indicatively examine what the Fathers and the teachers of the Church have said on the topic, and we shall see how very careful they were on the theological points that pertained to the knowledge of God.
We shall begin with a quotation from the patrology of S.Papadopoulos, on the prerequisites for “theologising” as discerned by Basil the Great.
«His fear was so immense in the face of theology, that he often avoided responding to theological questions and would more often beg persistently that the faithful do not raise issues of faith. People should be satisfied with whatever has been formulated in the Church – in the plain words of the Scripture and the ancient Tradition (Epistle 258). But only when that same faithful – and frequently a self-declared cacodox – creates problems and doubts that cannot be confronted using the plain words of the Bible and the extensively developed Tradition of the Church, only then does Basil focus on the problem and theologize; that is when he ministers to the salvation of the faithful. And his ministry-theology wants to presuppose (and indeed does presuppose) the following:
a) Time. One must dedicate time in order to attain the theory of truth, for theology, and be rid of external distractions: “One must take every measure to move away from external noises and to create every kind of quiet in the secrecy of the heart’s chamber, to thus achieve the theory of the truth” (“On the Psalms”, 3:3)
b) Catharsis (cleansing). The struggle for cleansing constitutes the foremost opus of a theologian. Catharsis restores man to his original natural beauty – to his original Adamian state. Fallen man has become carnal; he has a carnal conscience and that is the reason his nous cannot theorize – cannot visualize the truth: “Inasmuch as, the carnal man, who has a nous that is un-exercised for theory […] is unable to look upon the spiritual light of truth”. (“On the Holy Spirit”, 22)
c) Illumination. The fact of illumination for the first time takes on its vast dimensions: Ignatius, Irenaeus and Athanasius […] all spoke relatively on this matter. Thus, with the cleansing of the nous, the heart (man in general) resembles a clear eye, in which the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) like a sun divulges divine reality […] the spirit-bearing soul becomes illumined and thereafter illumines others. More specifically, in the area of the theological opus, this state relates to the distribution of the charismas of the Spirit […]. The realization, the knowledge of the truth in man, is accomplished through man’s entrance into the active and radiating reality of the Holy Spirit. According to Basil, this is exactly what the Psalm excerpt of “in Thy light shall we see light” signifies (Psalm 35:10). This had also been underlined by Irenaeus at the end of the second century AD. “Knowledge”, Basil stressed, “is attained in the Spirit”. One must enter the Holy Spirit, enter the divine reality (and therefore the truth), in order to truly have the truth and be able to express it genuinely. The truth – which a theologian has to enter into – is characterized as “sanctums” and “secrets”, whose “sight” is “inapproachable”. Nevertheless, God does not leave man without His mercy. When man seeks the truth – that is, something of the “secrets”, of the infinite truth, He provides man with help and bestows him the aforementioned condition.” (Tome 2, p.381-383).
Another of the major theologians of the Church moves along the same lines: Saint Gregory the Theologian.
In his same work, S. Papadopoulos mentions:
“First among the great Fathers, Gregory provides a special mention regarding theology, on account of the swarm of improvised theologians, who were generally encouraged by Arianism. Here too, it is characteristic that his word is also autobiographical. When speaking of theology, he eventually describes the process that took place inside him, when he had attempted to solve theological issues:
“Why did this happen to me, o friends and mystics and co-lovers of the truth? Because I ran to catch up to God, I ascended the mountain (=theologizing) and passed through the cloud and found myself inside it […] and when I looked carefully, I caught only a glimpse of His back… and there I stayed for a little.” (Chapter 28:3)
“Ascending the mountain willingly – or, to say it more truthfully, willingly and simultaneously struggling (the former for the sake of hope, and the latter for the sake of weakness), so that I may enter the cloud and be together with God (for this is what God requires of me)…. (Chapter 28:2)
“…it seemed to me that is it is best to avoid being pleased with images and shadows, these being things that are deceptive […] making use of the Spirit as guide, having accepted here the illumination and preserving it to the end…” (Chapter 31:33)
Gregory’s aim was to pass through the curtain of the world and “be together” with God – that is, with the truth – which alone can secure direct and sure knowledge. It is the so-called “theopty” – the “sighting” of God that Gregory speaks of, mainly in conjunction with theological quests […] Theopty – that is, the personal experience of the truth – is connected to catharsis (cleansing) […] In Gregory’s case, theopty becomes absolutely theological; that is, it is the process that leads to a greater degree of experience of the divine truth, which however includes and is in absolute relevance to the teaching-truth as already expressed by the Church, and especially to the Holy Bible […] – the “most excellent theologian”, as Gregory characterizes the exceptionally gifted and discernible person of the Church, Her hero, the “God-viewer” who does not reach the sighting of God only because of his spiritual pleasure, but chiefly thanks to his profounder knowledge of the truth…” (p.407=499)
These are things that all the major Fathers stress. Worth mentioning are the words of Saint John Climacus (=of the Ladder) – one of the most spiritual texts of the Philokalia, and beyond every contestation:
“The profundity of dogmas is very deep, and the mind of the hesychast jumps and sinks into them, not without danger. It is dangerous for one to swim with his clothes on; similarly, to touch theology whilst having passions.” (Chapter 27, On Quietness).
“The increment of fear is the beginning of love. And the completion of purity is the prerequisite for theology. He who has united his senses completely to God, is initiated in theology by God Himself. But if the senses have not been united to God, it is difficult and dangerous of one to theologize. The hypostatized Logos of God the Father will grant perfect purity and cleanliness in the one that He will dwell in, by mortifying death. After this mortification, the disciple of Christ becomes illumined and knowledgeable in theology. He who has not become acquainted with God in this way, speaks of God scholastically.” (Chapter 30, On Love, Hope and Faith).
But the unsurpassable Saint Gregory Palamas also admonishes us as follows:
“He who wants to say or hear something about God must clearly know that not all the matters of theology and salvation are ineffable nor are they all effable, and likewise they are not all known or all unknown.” We know that even those of the divine things that we are permitted to say are also beyond words, because they too are the uppermost of words (i.e., they are not beyond words because of their own insufficiency, but beyond the sufficiency of our own words); both those that we have inside us, as well as those that we project outwards, for the hearing of others. For, not even the one who by interpreting could present those things, nor could he on his own reach them by examining them with studiousness. We should therefore not permit ourselves to say things pertaining to God, but should turn ourselves towards those who speak in the Spirit of spiritual matters, and when opponents demand a word.” (150 Chapters, Chapter 80).
Divine knowledge is supra-logical – above human wording – and as such, we cannot actually reach it, which is why we are obliged to heed the saints who speak spiritually when it is asked of them, in order to provide theological solutions to whatever heretics have to say.
The blessed Chrysostom (the golden-tongued, as Gregory Palamas mentions him), when pinpointing man’s weakness and the fact that struggles are required -in collaboration with Divine Grace- in order for man to be led from catharsis to illumination and from illumination to deification, mentions that it is a sign of our fall, when we have need of books, although the perfect state would be for everyone to be taught directly by the Holy Spirit.
In his first Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, he mentions:
“We ought not to be in need the help of writings, but rather of offering such a pure life that the grace of the Spirit takes the place of the books inside our souls, and, just as they were imprinted with ink, thus should our hearts be imprinted inside us by the Spirit. Even with Noah, and with Abraham and his descendants, as well as with Job and Moses, God never spoke to them through writings, but directly, Himself, because He found their minds pure.
But because the Hebrew people fell into the depths of malice, they then needed writings and tablets and the reminder of those things. And this can be seen happening, not only in the saints of the Old but also of the New Testaments. Because God did not give any written words, not even to the Apostles; instead of writings, He promised to give them the grace of the Spirit (“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” – John 14:26)
And so that you learn that this was a far better thing, listen to what He says through the prophet: “I shall make a new covenant, and I shall give them My laws in their minds and upon their hearts shall write and everyone will be God-taught”. Paul also, when pointing out this sublimity, said that we received the law, “not on stone tablets, but on the fleshy tablets of the heart.”
How truly difficult it is, for a person to “theologize” while he is in the phase of catharsis and struggling with his passions! How many heresies can arise from a person’s ambitious attempts to reach Divine knowledge, without being suitably prepared for it! God however did not call upon us to “theologize” but to obey Him; and that through our obedience, the entire Holy Trinity might enter into our heart, cleanse it and sanctify it.
“If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” (John 14:23)
How grateful we should be to God, Who, through His saints has deposited holy knowledge inside the Church – the everlasting pillar and ground of the truth!
“If you are a theologian, you will pray sincerely; and if you pray sincerely, you are a theologian” (Saint Nilus, On Prayer, 60)
by Stelios Bafitis