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Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky
Orthodox dogmatic theology

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The nature of our knowledge of God

God in His essence is incomprehensible. God dwells “in the light which no man can approach

unto; Whom no man hath seen, nor can see,” instructs the Apostle Paul (1 Tim. 6:16).

In his Catechetical Lectures St. Cyril of Jerusalem instructs us: We explain not what God is,

but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning Him. For in what concerns

God, to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge” (Sixth Catechetical Lecture, Eerdmans tr.,

p. 33).

This is why there is no dogmatic value to be found in the various types of vast and

all-encompassing conceptions and rational searching on the subject of the inward life in God, and

likewise in concepts fabricated by analogy with the life of the human soul. Concerning the “fellow-

inquirers” of his time, St. Gregory of Nyssa, the brother of St Basil the Great, writes: “Men,

having left off delighting themselves in the Lord(Ps. 36:4) and rejoicing in the peace of the

Church, undertake refined researches regarding some kind of essences, and measure magnitudes,

measuring the Son in comparison with the Father, and granting a greater measure to the Father.

Who will say to them, `that which is not subject to number cannot be measured; what is invisible

cannot be valued; that which is fleshless cannot be weighed; that which is infinite cannot be

compared; that which is incomparable cannot be understood as greater or less, because we know

something as “greater” by comparing it with other things, but with something which has no end,

the idea of “greater” is unthinkable.' Great is our Lord, and great is His strength, and of Has

understanding there is no measure(Ps. 146:5). What does this mean? Number what has been

said, and you will understand the mystery.”

The same hierarch further writes: “If someone is making a journey in the middle of the day,

when the sun with its hot rays scorches the head and by its heat dries up everything liquid in the

body, and under one's feet is the hard earth which is difficult for walking and waterless; and then

such a man encounters a spring with splendid, transparent, pleasing and refreshing streams pouring

out abundantly — will he sit down by the water and begin to reason about its nature, seeking

out from whence it comes, how, from what, and all such things which idle speakers are wont to

judge about, for example: is it a certain moisture which exists in the depths of the earth that

comes to the surface under pressure and becomes water, or is it canals going through long desert

places that discharge water as soon as they find an opening for themselves? Will he not rather,

saying farewell to all rational deliberations, bend down his head to the stream and press his lips

to it, quench his thirst, refresh his tongue, satisfy his desire, and give thanks to the One Who gave

this grace? Therefore, let you also imitate this thirsting one” (St. Gregory of Nyssa, “Homily On

His Ordination,” from his works in Russian, vol. IV).

Nevertheless, to a certain extent we do have knowledge of God, knowledge to the extent

that He Himself has revealed it to men. One must distinguish between the comprehension ofGod, which in essence is impossible, and the knowledge of Him, even though incomplete, of

which the Apostle Paul says, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; and I know in part(1

Cor. 13:12). The degree of this knowledge depends upon the ability of man himself to know (This

distinction between what one might call the “absoluteunknowability of God and the “relativeknowability of Him

is set forth by St. John Damascene in Book 1, ch. 1 of the Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith.).

From whence do we derive knowledge of God?

a) It is revealed to men from the knowledge of nature, the knowledge of oneself, and the knowledge

of all of God's creation in general. “For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the

world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and

Godhead(Romans 1:20); that is, what is invisible in Him, His eternal power and Godhead, is

made visible from the creation of the world through observing the created things. Therefore,

those men are without excuse who, having known God, did not glorify Him as God and did not

give thanks, but became vain in their reasoning (Rom. 1:21). “The world is the kingdom of the

Divine thought” (St. John of Kronstadt).

b) God has manifested Himself yet more in supernatural revelation and through the Incarnation

of the Son of God, the God, “who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time-past unto

the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son(Heb. 1:1-2). “No

man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He

hath declared Him” (John 1:18).

Thus, did the Savior Himself teach concerning the knowledge of God? Having said, “All

things are delivered unto Me of My Father; and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither

knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, the Savior added, and he to whomsoever the Son will

reveal Him” (Matt. 11:27). And the Apostle John the Theologian writes in his epistle: “And we

know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us light and understanding that we may know

the true God(1 John 5:20).

Divine Revelation is given to us in the whole of Sacred Scripture and in Sacred Tradition,

the preservation, instruction, and true interpretation of which are the duty and concern of the holy

Church of Christ.

But even within the boundaries which are given us in the light of Divine Revelation, we

must follow the guidance of those who have purified their minds by an elevated Christian life

and made their minds capable of contemplating exalted truths; that is, we must follow the guidance

of the Fathers of the Church, while watching ourselves morally. About this, St. Gregory the

Theologian instructs us: “If you wish to be a theologian and worthy of the Divine, keep the laws;

by means of the Divine laws go towards the high aim; for activity is the ascent to vision” (“Activity

here is a technical term often encountered in Orthodox ascetic texts; it refers to the means (keeping the commandments,

ascetic discipline, etc). which lead one to the end of spiritual life (“vision” or “contemplation” of God).)

That is, strive and attain moral perfection, for only this path will give the possibility of ascending

to the heights from whence Divine Truths are contemplated. (Homily 20 of St. Gregory

the Theologian).

The Savior Himself has uttered, Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God

(Matt. 5:8).

The powerlessness of our mind to comprehend God is expressed by the Church, in the Divine

Services: “At a loss for words to express the meaning of Thine incomprehensible Thriceradiant

Godhead, we praise Thee, O Lord.” That is, having no power to understand the mysticalNames of Thy three-rayed Divinity, with our hearts we glorify Thee, O Lord. (From the Canon of

the Sunday Midnight Office, Tone VII, Fourth Canticle).

In antiquity certain of the heretics introduced the idea that God is entirely incomprehensible,

inaccessible to the understanding. They built their affirmations upon the idea that God is a simple

Essence, and from this the false conclusion, being a simple Essence, Who has no inward content

or qualities. Therefore, it was sufficient, they said, to name the Names of God — for example

Theos (God — “He Who Sees”), or Jehovah (“He Who Is”), or to indicate His single characteristic,

His “unoriginateness,” in order to say everything that can be said about God. (Some of the

Gnostics reasoned in this way — for example, Valentinus in the second century and Eunomius

and the Anomoeans in the fourth century, thought this way). The Holy Fathers replied to this heresy

with a fervent protest, seeing in it an overthrowing of the essence of religion. Answering the

heretics, they clarified and proved, both from the Scripture and by means of reason: 1) that the

simplicity of God's essence is united to the fullness of His attributes, the fullness of the content of

the Divine Life, and 2) that the very Names of God in the Divine ScriptureJehovah, Elohim,

Adonai, and others — express not the very essence of God, but primarily show the relation of

God to the world and to man.

Other heretics in antiquity, for example the Marcionites, fell into the opposite extreme, affirming

that God is completely unknown and inaccessible to our understanding. For this reason,

the Fathers of the Church showed that there is a degree of the knowledge of God, which is possible,

useful, and needful for us. St Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Catechetical Lectures, teaches: “If

someone says that the essence of God is incomprehensible, then why do we speak about Him?

However, is it true that because I cannot drink the whole river I will not take water from it in

moderation for my benefit? Is it true that because my eyes are not in a condition to take in the

whole sun, I am therefore unable to behold as much as is needed for me? If, when going into

some great garden, I cannot eat all the fruits, would you wish that I go away from it completely

hungry?” (Catechetical Lectures, VI, 5).

It is well known how Blessed Augustine, when he was walking along the seashore thinking

about God, saw a boy sitting at the seaside scooping water from the sea with a seashell and pouring

it into a pit in the sand. This scene inspired him to think of the disproportion between our

shallow minds and the greatness of God. It is just as impossible for our mind to hold a conception

of God in all His greatness, as it is impossible to scoop up the sea with a seashell.

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