Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Question Concerning the Knowledge of God and Orthodox Gnosiology

I received the following question via email and below that is my answer.


Father Romanides taught that when someone experiences theosis, when they experience the uncreated glory of God and His uncreated energies, then "perfection has come" and faith and hope are no longer necessary and only love remains (I Cor. 13.10). Romanides also taught that prayer of the heart is an experience in which the saint is aware of the Holy Spirit praying within them, which is an existential phenomenon and empirical for the person experiencing it.

How does his teaching relate to the following particular idea of Father Alexander Elchaninov in his book Diary of a Russian Priest?

"Those who demand proofs in order to believe are on the wrong track. Faith is a free choice; wherever there is a desire for proof, even a desire hidden from ourselves, there is no faith. The evidences of divine manifestation must not be taken as 'proofs' - this would be to degrade and nullify the great virtue of faith."


They are speaking of two different methods of attaining to a knowledge of God.

Father Elchaninov is critiquing here the scholastic and philosophical "proofs" for the existence of God as well as those who seek to get to know God by such proofs. Proofs are obtained from deductive reasoning or logic, rather than from inductive or empirical arguments. It was believed by the scholastics that if we believe in God we can come to know Him through reason and deduction. Anselm of Canterbury used to say: “I believe in order to comprehend”. Therefore, according to the scholastics, faith comes first (a priori) then through rational arguments and logical categories we can know God - this is Natural Theology according to Thomas Aquinas. Revelation was believed to come through Scripture alone and its contemplation. With the association between philosophy and theology the model of metaphysics proposed by the scholastics collapsed in the West, and ever since people think that they can actually come to faith through logic and reason, which is still considered the highest faculty within man.

Father Romanides presents the Orthodox a posteriori approach to theology, which is the biblical and patristic scientific method. By "a posteriori" and "scientific" we mean that it is empirical. The word empirical denotes information gained by means of observation, experience, or experiment. A central concept in science and the scientific method is that all evidence must be empirical, or empirically based, that is, dependent on evidence or consequences that are observable by the senses. St. Paul in Romans 1 speaks of a natural faith which arises empirically from the moment we are able to comprehend our observations in the created world. Commenting on this, St. John Chrysostom says: "Every Scythian, every barbarian, may come to the knowledge of God by the wonderful harmony of all things, which proclaims the existence of God louder than any trumpet." According to Scripture and the Church Fathers, this initial natural faith is meant to lead the individual to revelation through the prescribed therapeutic method which purifies the nous (the highest faculty in man according to the Orthodox) darkened through our passions and sins and allows us to see with our eyes through the illumination of the Holy Spirit the uncreated glory of God. This is why Jesus said in Matthew 5: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." The pure in heart thus have an actual empirical observable knowledge of God, and revelation of divine things becomes written in the heart through the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. This is the faith which the Prophets foretold, the Apostles taught, the Fathers received, and the Church proclaims.

Some will ask where does Holy Scripture fall into the picture. We will conclude with St. John Chrysostom, who beautifully explains this in his commentary on Matthew 1:

"It were indeed meet for us not at all to require the aid of the written word, but to exhibit a life so pure, that the grace of the Spirit should be instead of books to our souls, and that as these are inscribed with ink, even so should our hearts be with the Spirit. But, since we have utterly put away from us this grace, come, let us at any rate embrace the second best course.

For that the former was better, God has made manifest, both by His words, and by His doings. Since unto Noah, and unto Abraham, and unto his offspring, and unto Job, and unto Moses too, He discoursed not by writings, but Himself by Himself, finding their mind pure. But after the whole people of the Hebrews had fallen into the very pit of wickedness, then and thereafter was a written word, and tables of stone, and the admonition which is given by these.

And this one may perceive was the case, not of the saints in the Old Testament only, but also of those in the New. For neither to the apostles did God give anything in writing, but instead of written words He promised that He would give them the grace of the Spirit: for 'He', says our Lord, 'shall bring all things to your remembrance' (John 14:26). And that you may learn that this was far better, hear what He says by the Prophet [Jeremiah]: 'I will make a new covenant with you, putting my laws into their mind, and in their heart I will write them' (31:33), and, 'they shall be all taught by God' (31:34). And Paul too, pointing out the same superiority, said, that they had received a law 'not on tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart' (2 Cor. 3:3).

But since in the process of time they made shipwreck, some with regard to doctrines, others as to life and manners, there was again need that they should be put in remembrance by the written word.

Reflect then how great an evil it is for us, who ought to live so purely as not even to need written words, but to yield up our hearts, as books, to the Spirit; now that we have lost that honor, and have come to have need of these, to fail again in duly employing even this second remedy. For if it be a blame to stand in need of written words, and not to have brought down on ourselves the grace of the Spirit; consider how heavy the charge of not choosing to profit even after this assistance, but rather treating what is written with neglect, as if it were cast forth without purpose, and at random, and so bringing down upon ourselves our punishment with increase.

But that no such effect may ensue, let us give strict heed unto the things that are written; and let us learn how the Old Law was given on the one hand, and how on the other the New Covenant."