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|Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky|
Orthodox dogmatic theology
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The essence of God.
“If you wish to speak or hear about God,” St. Basil the Great theologizes, “renounce your
own body, renounce your bodily senses, abandon the earth, abandon the sea, make the air to be
beneath you; pass over the seasons of the year, their orderly arrangement, the adornments of the
earth; stand above the ether, traverse the stars, their splendor, grandeur, the profit which they
provide for the whole world, their good order, brightness, arrangement, movement, and the bond
or distance between them. Having passed through all of this in your mind, go about heaven and,
standing above it, with your thought alone, observe the beauties which are there: the armies of
angels which are above the heavens, the chiefs of the archangels, the glory of the Dominions, the
presiding of the Thrones, the Powers, Principalities, Authorities. Having gone past all this and
left below the whole of creation in your thoughts, raising your mind beyond the boundaries of it,
present to your mind the essence of God, unmoving, unchanging, unalterable, dispassionate, simple,
complex, indivisible, unapproachable light, unutterable power, infinite magnitude, resplen-dent glory, most desired goodness, immeasurable beauty that powerfully strikes the wounded
soul, but cannot worthily be depicted in words.”
Such exaltation of spirit is demanded in order for one to speak of God! Nevertheless, under
this condition the thoughts of man are capable only of dwelling on the attributes of the Divinity,
not upon the very essence of the Divinity.
There are in Sacred Scripture words concerning God which “touch on” or “come close” to
the idea of His very essence. These are expressions that are composed grammatically in such a
way that, in their form, they answer not only the question “what kind?” — that is, what are the
attributes of God but they seem also to answer the question “who” — that is, “Who is God?”
Such expressions are,
“I Am He That Is” (in Hebrew, Jehovah) (Ex. 3:14).
“I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending with the Lord, which is, and which
was, and which is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8).
“The Lord is the True God” (Jer. 10:10).
“God is Spirit” — the words of the Savior to the Samaritan woman (John 4:23).
“The Lord is that Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17).
“God is light, and in Him it no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
“God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16).
“Our God as a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29).
However, these expressions also must not be understood as indications of the very essence of
God Only as concerns the name “He That Is” did the Fathers of the Church say that it “in some
fashion” (the expression of St. Gregory the Theologian) or, “as it seems” (St. John Damascene) is
a naming of the essence. Although more rarely, this same significance has been given to the
names “good” and “God” in the Greek language — Theos, meaning” He Who Sees.” As distinct
from everything” existing” and created, the Fathers of the Church applied to the existence of God
the term “He Who is above all being,” as in the kontakion, “The Virgin now giveth birth to Him
Who is above all being.” The Old Testament “Jehovah,” “He That Is,” which was revealed by
God to the Prophet Moses, has just such a profound meaning. (That is to say: When we say that God is
“He that Is,” we mean that He “is” in a superlative sense and not in the way that all of His creation “is”; and this is
the same assaying that He is the One “Who is above all being” (Kontakion of the Nativity of Christ).).
Thus, one may speak only of the attributes of God, but not of the very essence of God The
Fathers express themselves only indirectly concerning the nature of the Divinity, saying that the
essence of God is “one, simple, incomplex.” However, this simplicity is not something without
distinguishing characteristics or content; it contains within itself the fullness of the qualities of
existence. “God is a sea of being, immeasurable and limitless” (St. Gregory the Theologian);
“God is the fullness of all qualities and perfection in their highest and infinite form” (St. Basil the
Great); “God is simple and incomplex; He is entirely feeling, entirely spirit, entirely thought, entirely
mind, entirely source of all good things” (St. Irenaeus of Lyons).