The Operations of God (chapter 7 of Staniloae’s “Experience of God”)

creation_icon

The next few chapters of The Experience of God are Staniloae’s extended commentary and refining of the essential points made in the sixth chapter. In chapter seven Staniloae addresses the particular claims of the Orthodox tradition’s insistence upon the distinction between the essence and energies of God. Thankfully the English translator employs the word “operation” instead of “energy” (this may just be a peculiarity of Staniloae’s own Romanian?). I have found it difficult expressing the gist of this infamous doctrine when using the word “energy”. The word alone seems to imply powers residing within the infinite Godhead, or to be somewhat cartoonish, to imply that God is enveloped by some sort of “energy field”. I believe in employing the word “operation” there is an allowance for an English speaker to understand the dynamic nature of the energies of God and their specific relationship to the created world. God’s operations are God’s dynamic and unceasing work of sustaining and guiding His creation towards union with Himself. This cosmological and eschatological point of view seems to me to be the difference between Staniloae and other modern Orthodox interpreter’s of the operations of God.

Staniloae is not specifically affixed to the issues of existential knowledge vs. rationalistic knowledge being the point of the doctrine concerning operations of God – at least not in this chapter. I mention this fact because this point is what I perceive to be what many modern Orthodox thinkers argue is the crux of the doctrine and therefore a definitive difference with the Western theological tradition. Staniloae’s presentation here is a refreshing approach to understanding how God maintains God’s freedom and transcendence from the world all the while being actively sustaining and working within the world to bring it and humanity into communion with God. Typical to Staniloae’s treatment of the primary doctrines of the Orthodox Church, Staniloae has refracted this doctrine through his specific concern with the created order and its telos in God. Unlike Lossky and other modern interpreters of Palamas there is not in Staniloae a supreme focus on epistemological issues. Rather the focus of Staniloae is trained on seeing the doctrine of the essence and operations of God within the structures of “theosis” – the graced cosmos, the sacraments, and the myriad nature of human experience.

In another source Staniloae insists “Christianity must emphasize today the value and the mystery of man and the world in a special way, in order to save man from a grave moral decadence and a remarkable egoism in interhuman relations; and to save the world from total catastrophe”.[1] In discussing this chapter I want to point to two interrelated points brought out within this specific chapter and how the doctrine of the essence and energies/operations of God figures into Staniloae’s theological vision. Those two points are God’s meaningful and rationally structured creation and humanity’s place within it and the importance of Divine and human personhood and freedom. These two points reiterate Staniloae’s insistence upon what Christians must emphasize in our modern context. Let us first turn to the mystery of man and the world.

God’s attributes can be categorized in various ways. God is “good”, “just”, or “merciful”. We do not experience these attributes as abstract ideas. Rather, we experience these attributes in a myriad of ways throughout our life. We experience the “pressure” of God through various occurrences and people who are providential supplied to us. In other words, we experience God’s operations within the world as a continuous symphony – not in a single ravishing transcendent experience. Staniloae states: “Through his attributes God makes something of his being evident to us, but this something is made specific within one vast and uninterrupted symphony of continually new acts that guide creation and each element of it separately towards the final goal of full union with him” (128). The operations of God we experience are fully God, yet God is infinitely beyond our experience. I say “beyond” because we do experience God through his operations in the world, however words fail in “capturing” God. “[T]he mystery of the personal reality of God is experience, properly speaking, through the renunciation of all the words that point to the attributes and operations of God directed toward us” (129).

God stands above creation. The triune God is super-essential – existing in a superior mode to creation. God does not rely on anything, is not encompassed by a system of references, or need to participate in anything in order to exist. God’s triune life is “act or power” and he possesses all of his own attributes unaided by created reality. It may be helpful to consider this through an analogy. The operations of God in the world are like a ladder. We experience God’s goodness in varied degrees throughout our life and it is through these experiences that we taste God’s goodness. We have not “grasped” God within our own machinations or experiences. Rather our experiences have provided us with a sign that points us towards the person of God. What Staniloae has done to help me understand this doctrine is to put God’s governance into the framework of the operations of God. It is not an abstract discussion of God’s specific names or attributes that we may meditate on and by grace or will sling ourselves up towards the transcendent. It is out of the over-abundant love of God that He governs and leads our lives through various levels of communication with us. He operates or communicates to us through the encouragement of others, through the testament of Scripture, through the lives of the Saints, or as in the case of St. Poryphorios, even in the song of a nightingale. This is so because God has in creating us not abandoned us, but continues to sustain, guide, and communicate to us through the created symbolic order that is the cosmos in which we live, move, and have our very being.

The transcendence of God is key for Staniloae for two reasons. The first reason is the reality of monotheism, God is beyond the created order and this is a good for creation. All of reality flows from the will of the Triune God, not out of necessity but out of God’s freely chosen act of creating, sustaining, and ultimately redeeming reality. This grounds Staniloae’s “apophatic personhood”. What grounds reality is the fact of the divine persons of the Godhead have created not out of necessity but out of love. If it were otherwise meaning and difference would collapse. Divine super-essential persons sustain reality. Second, this transcendence is actually extremely important for humanity. Being made in the image of God we participate in the mystery of personhood, specifically the gift of freedom. In fact, for Staniloae it is the reality of the transcendence of the divine Personal reality that “assures the existence of human persons who are not totally enclosed within nature’s system of references (once God secures for them this liberty). Otherwise everything would fall under the rule of the meaningless laws of nature and death” (138). The transcendent reality of the essence of God has become for Staniloae the lynchpin in securing human freedom and therefore morality. The world is meaningful because it flows out of the Divine community of love. The world is going somewhere and for a real purpose, namely, personal communion with God.

Staniloae’s weaving of the doctrine about the operations and essence of God has been tuned to the contemporary issues of scientism, nihilism, and utilitarianism. We must affirm the transcendence of the Creator in order to secure the freedom of the human being. This affirmation is an affirmation of moral and cosmic significance. In fact, to separate the cosmic from the moral is to make a serious error. We experience God through the “pressure” of every day existence. It is in and through our varied experiences we are able to experience God’s guidance of the cosmos into communion with Himself.

[1] Charles Miller, Gift of the World: An Introduction to the Theology of Dumitru Staniloae, 55.

The Knowledge of God (chapter 6 of Staniloae’s “Experience of God”)

dionysios converting the pagan philosophers

 

“… it is not the same to say something about God as it is to gain and see God.” So St Gregory Palamas said to Barlaam (The Experience of God, p115).

Here is Fr Staniloae’s central note about the Knowledge of God — that at its highest point and most essential depth, it is beyond experience and inexpressible, that it is a “trans-apophaticism” that extends even beyond via negativa, and finally and climactically, it is the ineffable experience of God as Person (only, of course, in the extent of God’s energy, never His essence).

In the most valuable accessible survey of the patristic tradition of the Knowledge of God, Fr Staniloae moves from Gregory the Theologian to Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysios the Areopagite, Symeon the New Theologian and Gregory Palamas (referring to Maximus the Confessor along the way). His discussion of the Areopagite in particular, if for no other part of this chapter, is a most helpful corrective to the contemporary Orthodox discussion of knowledge (especially in the shadow of a “Western captivity” of Orthodox academia).

As in any other Orthodox discussion of the Knowledge of God, Fr Staniloae contrasts the two different strains of the knowledge of God: the rational or “cataphatic” knowledge on one hand, and the ineffable or “apophatic” on the other. And, along with everyone else, the author clearly states that the apophatic is superior to the rational, because it completes it.

Here, though, is where he parts company from the rest: from this point, Fr Staniloae discusses the Knowledge of God in ways that at least “sounds” different from other Orthodox presentations. In the first part of his discussion, the author focuses on the relationship between these two kinds of knowledge of God. The very fact that he makes the relationship a subject of consideration distinguishes him from the usual Orthodox treatment. Instead of positing a sharp differentiation, if not chiasmus, between “cataphaticism” and “apophaticism,” Fr Staniloae rather “nests” the former within the latter. After all, the latter is superior because of the fact that it substantiates the completion of the former. If that is true, then it makes little sense, if any, to isolate these two terms in opposition to each other.

Contrary to the common notion that cataphatic knowledge is positive and apophatic knowledge is negative, Fr Staniloae emphasizes that cataphasis as “rational knowledge” includes not only “positive” knowledge, but also “negative” knowledge. This latter is the “via negativa” of both East and West, in which long intellectual tradition there is a constant and honest dissatisfaction with any philosophical term that describes God, because there is, at the root of all knowledge, a certainty that God as Person must infinitely exceed all creaturely definition.

So the renunciation of philosophical terms (and the resulting and unending discursive dialectic) about God is actually part of the rational, cataphatic tradition of Knowledge. Here, the author contrasts the Eastern tradition from the West: this intellectual renunciation of terms — i.e., the via negativa — is not part of apophatic knowledge. The renunciative tradition is really propositional. It consists of “statements about” rather than the “ineffable experience” that exceeds any attempt to confine in cognitive expression. The apophatic experience of divinity — especially, in its most ineffable, the experience of God as Person — lies not only beyond philosophical proposition, but also beyond the possibility of internal language, or thought. That is, it is “trans-rational” — surely a better term than “irrational.”

“Rationality” is never denounced in patristic tradition. How can it be, Staniloae asks, when the Logos upon which rationality is predicated (see Justin Martyr’s revision of the Stoic doctrine of the logos spermatikos) is Christ Himself, through Whom and form Whom all things were made?

Here, Fr Staniloae emphasizes the validity and necessity of cataphatic knowledge, nesting it (or framing it) as he does within the exponentially larger apophatic experience. He quotes Dionysios at this critical passage — an “apophatic” spiritual writer who is finally and correctly identified as one who “harmonizes” the two knowledges of God:

Since it is the Cause of all beings, we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regard to beings, and, more appropriately, we should negate all these affirmations, since it surpasses all being. Now we should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposites of the affirmations, but rather that the cause of all is considerably prior to this, beyond privations, beyond every denial, beyond every assertion. (Mystical Theology, I.2, quoted by Staniloae, p111).

Both kinds of this knowledge of God can be known, at least partly, by any human — whether positive and negative in cataphasis, or the trans-rational ineffable experience of God as Person in apophasis. The natural revelation of God as Creator, immanent to and transcendent of His Creation as absolute, with Creation (i.e., all space-time and eternity) in utter contingency upon Him is always “shot-through” with supernatural revelation.

But this raises an ambiguity in Staniloae himself that is probably true of the general Orthodox thinking about the Knowledge of God: is the apophatic experience given only to those who “believe,” who are “Christian,” who participate in the Body of Christ in a decisive manner?

It is true that the apophatic experience grows and becomes more known (though always ineffably) as a “man progresses in the spiritual life, the intellectual knowledge about God — as creator of the world and source of its providential care — which comes to man from the world, is imbued with the direct and richer contemplation of him, that is, with apophatic knowledge” (p97).

But is a non-baptized human being excluded from apophasis? It does not seem so in this sixth chapter of The Experience of God. That said, a non-baptized person cannot experience the continued perfecting process of apophasis. Neither, it is strongly insinuated, can an Orthodox person — even, and especially, an intellectual academic — who does not participate in purification.

Here we are drawn to one of the oddest features of Fr Staniloae’s essay on the Knowledge of God. After his distinctive comparison of cataphasis and apophasis (which is helpfully summarized on pages 116-117), and his note that the Orthodox ethos is characterized by apophasis (at this point he returns to familiar Orthodox language about apophasis), the author makes an abrupt jump into a “practical life” discussion of apophatic knowledge.

In this undeniably “existential” dimension of the subject of apophasis, Fr Staniloae returns to the powerful legacy of St Maximus the Confessor — that is, his famous insistence upon the conversion from “philautia” (i.e., “self-love”) to the essentially Christ-like love for others. It is in this practice of love that the human creature is drawn into the fundamentally Trinitarian “form” of existence — which is “goodness” itself:

In this knowledge I no longer see God only as the creator and the providential guide of all things, or as the mystery which makes himself visible to all, filling all with a joy which is to a greater or lesser extent the same in all cases; but I know him in his special care in regard to me, in his intimate relations with me, in his plan whereby, through the particular suffering, demands, and direction that he addresses to me in life, he leads me in a special way to the common goal (p118).

It is distinctive of Staniloae that he sets this existential, practical participation in love (and Trinitarian life) squarely in the province of apophasis!

And that, I would suggest, is what makes Orthodoxy truly Orthodox.

Anyways, it should be noted that all knowledge, for Staniloae (who stands squarely in the old patristic tradition), utterly relational. Every true concept is a “sentence” addressed by “Infinite Person” to man.

In summary, what does Fr Staniloae not set out to do in this chapter on Knowledge of God?

He does not dismiss intellectual knowledge in favor of apophatic knowledge, neither does he draw a rigid distinction between them.

He does not equate cataphatic knowledge with positive theology, and apophatic knowledge with irrationality. In fact, rationality embraces both positive and negative terms.

He does not conflate apophasis with “religious knowledge” or “theology.” Neither does he associate cataphasis with “natural revelation” and apophasis with “supernatural revelation.”

He does not sequester the knowledge of God away from “secular” knowledge, reason or philosophy.

He does not denounce analogy, or even analogia entis.

There are a lot of things that Fr Staniloae does not do, that a lot of other people (even Orthodox people), in fact, do.

Finally, there are many dichotomies identified in Fr Staniloae’s chapter on the Knowledge of God: immanence vs transcendence; created vs uncreated (which itself is a categorized comprising energy vs essence, person vs nature); time-space vs eternity (and above that is everlasting, or absolute/infinite).

But the very prettiest thing in this chapter is that knowledge is divine communication. In which beauty always traverses these dichotomies.

And the most beautiful expression — and form — is the Word Himself.

Chapter 5 – Theology as Ecclesial Service

Dogmas, the truths of the faith necessary for salvation (p. 59), must have their endless content continually disclosed. This process of disclosure is the task of theology (p. 79). Theological inquiry informs all aspects of church life, from preaching to pastoral care, to sanctification (ibid). It is shaped and inspired by the Holy Scriptures and the Apostolic Tradition of the Church.

Theology is tasked with the mission of taking dogmatic truths and conveying them in a way that aids the faithful in understanding the various aspects of the Christian faith. Therefore, it cannot remain stagnant or inflexible. While the dogmas themselves are true, timeless and unchanging, the theological interpretations of these truths need to be able to communicate with the time and place in which the interpretation occurs.

This is not to say that theology, thus understood, deviates from the dogmatic truths to which they point. Fr. Staniloae makes this clear in his discussion of the relationship between dogma and theologoumena. If theologoumena is to be understood as theological examinations which have not been adopted as official ecclesiastical formulations, then implied in this is an assertion that there are root-level agreements between theologoumena and the dogmas to which they refer. Otherwise, they are not even to be considered theologoumena. Moreover, they will simply become obsolete over time, because they do not reference the dogmatic truths of the Church, nor do they aid in the salvific work of the Church. Ultimately they will be abandoned (p. 83).

In the Orthodox context, “[t]heology is done in the Church through the personal thinking of her members (p. 85).” There is no separation between Church and theology as exists in the Catholic Church (ibid.). The inerrancy of the Church and its theological work is assured because the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit and because the Church preserves the dogmas it was given through experience and represented in the synods of bishops (ibid.). “All members of the Church are part of this body and all do theology to a greater or lesser extent.”

While each member of the Church can theologize, the temptation towards individualism can be circumvented in a couple of ways. The first is that the individual works to make sure that the theology that is derived is in harmony with the teaching that has been received. Also, quoting Evagrios Pontos, “If you are a theologian you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian (p. 86).”

Remembering that theology is the work of presenting dogmatic truths, it is important to emphasize that the theologian needs to be an active participant in the life of the Church. “The theologian will never know God [God from the experience of His saving activity among men]f he does not enter into a personal relationship with God and with the faithful through prayer (p. 87).

As time progresses, and as new problems arise, it is the task of theology to bring those issue to bear over and against the dogmatic truths of the faith. For while the truths are unchangeable, to present them in a way that is rigid and insensitive to the matters of the age would be both inadequate and damaging (p. 88). However, in bringing theology to bear on current events, three conditions should be held: 1) fidelity to the dogmas which are held and knowable through the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church; 2) responsibility to the faithful who are contemporary to the theology being done and 3) openness to the eschatological future, the future of deification, that awaits the faithful. A theology that neglects the tradition of the past is damaging, just as is a theology that fails to be relevant to the challenges of the present, just as is a theology which fails to prepare the faithful for a future that is understood to be an eternity in the presence of God, out theosis.

All of these concerns should be held in balance, should be equally considered. An overemphasis on any one or two, to the detriment of those remaining, would produce a deficient theology which at best would be innocuous or irrelevant and ultimately cast aside, and at worst it would be destructive or even corrosive to the soul.

While theology is meant to take all of these aspects into account, it must be understood that it will never explain in toto the One to whom the dogmas of the faith refer. Theology does not supplant dogma. Neither does theology exhaust all of the dogmatic truths that concern God. This is the very basis for the emphasis on apophaticism that is central to Orthodox thought. Citing Lossky, the Church is not a school of philosophy debating abstract coincepts, it is “essentially a communion with the living God (p. 92; cf. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. (London, 1957) p. 42).”

Theology thus continues to advance our understanding of God through its re-presenting of the dogmas of the faith. Remaining faithful to the teachings of the past, relevant to the concerns of the present, and humbly open to the challenges of the future, theology continues to nourish and sustain the faithful of the Church.

Staniloae concludes this chapter with yet another incisive comment from our father among the saints, Maximos: “Theology will be effective if it stands always before God and helps the faithful to do the same in their every act: to see God through the formulae of the past, to express him through the explanations of the present, to hope and to call for the advancement towards full union with him in the life to come (p. 93).

Forgive me.

Chapter 4: The Church as the Instrument for Preserving Revelation

As Bishop BASIL (Essey) introduced Fr. Zacharias to his clergy during one of their retreats, he made mention of the idea of paradosis (παρὰδοσις, the Greek word we usually translate as “tradition”).  Not so much like links in a chain but strands in a tapestry, is the way in which the tradition of the Church is passed from person to person, from group to group, from generation to generation.

An icon written on a woven piece of cloth.

It is with this in mind that we move on into chapter four of Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Dogmatics.  “Tradition”, Fr. Staniloae states, “cannot exist without the Church (p. 53).”  The Church, it must be understood, is the community that came into existence at the time of the Apostles, and continues — being formed by tradition, and also forming tradition:  “The Church begins with tradition, tradition begins with the Church (p. 53).”

The Church is also bears the work of the Holy Spirit, which means that God’s action (as evidenced in natural and supernatural revelation)  is also an integral part of tradition (p.53).  God acts, and the community continually works to reflect in better ways the manner in which God is acting.

There is a mutually dependent connection between the Church, tradition, and it’s subset, Scripture.  The Church is the agency through which Scripture is “activated”.  Tradition is the lens through which Scripture is comprehensible.

Fr. Stanlioae notes with particular emphasis that the Protestant Church’s rejection of the Church has resulted in a loss of παρὰδοσις, the handing off of the faith from one person to another, which is an integral part of the continuity of tradition. Also, the rejection of the Church means that whenever Scripture is interpreted in the Protestant world, it is done without the fullness of tradition, which by extension means that the depths of the Scriptures themselves are not fully understood or plumbed.

This obviously stands in direct opposition to any notion of Sola Scriptura, the foundation of many of the disparate Protestant denominations.  Scripture is understood as self-interpreting, or the interpretation of Scripture is left up to the individual.  The Church is not necessary for correct interpretation to occur.  Paraphrasing Luther, a layman with the Scriptures is superior to any Pope without them.

Some, like the Methodists and their notion of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” (which was not Wesley’s at all), expand the sources of authority to include not only Scripture and tradition, but reason and experience as well.  Putting the four on an equal footing shows the same diminution of the Church and the tradition of the Church, because experience can be either individual or corporate, and reason can be intra or extra ecclesial.  Quoting Stanley Hauerwas, “I was raised a Methodist. That means before I was twelve I had already had all the experience I could take…. Methodists should not be allowed to use the word ‘experience’ because they usually mean by that salvation consists in having the right feelings at the right time and in the right place. Rather than our confrontation with God being an occasion for challenging our endemic narcissism, the emphasis on experience thus only underwrites our fatal narcissism [cf. Michael Cartwright, “Afterward: Stanley Hauerwas’s Essays in Theological Ethics: A Reader’s Guide”, in John Berkman and Michael Cartwright, eds., The Hauerwas Reader (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), pp. 650-51.].” The problem then is that a person left on their own to determine the meaning of existence can easily fall prey to self-deception. An Orthodox (or Catholic – note that Fr. Staniloae is only criticising Protestantism at this point) vision of Church as Staniloae presents it, defining and being defined by tradition, providing context and meaning for revelatory experience, enables a person to narrate (Hauerwas’s word) one’s own experiences truthfully.

Ultimately, the plan of salvation and deification is found in tradition, Scripture, and the Church and is the reason why they are of any importance anyway.  Dogmas are the points at which salvation and deification are preserved within tradition.  Dogmas are revealed either naturally or supernaturally.  These revelations occur between two actors who are open to one another, through a tangible relationship.  This openness implies a certain degree of vulnerability: defenses are dropped, so if trust is not a part of the relationship, a person can get hurt.  The trust is brought about by faith, that the relationship will lead to theosis, rather than to destruction.  Faith and revelation are mutually dependent.

Dogmas themselves have been the focal point of a great deal of derision over the last several centuries.

The examples of this are legion. From David Hume, whose theological convictions were vague at best, to Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, adherence to the dogmas spelled out in the Ecumenical Councils hold little weight. Dogmas are seen as restrictive or outdated/outmoded. A classic example of this is found in Charles Ketcham’s A Theology of Encounter (University Park, PA and London: Penn St. University Press, 1978) where he argues that classical philosophical categories found in Plato and Aristotle are no longer relevant or sufficient and that what is needed is a re-presentation of concepts like revelation, justification and salvation based on new philosophical approaches (Buber, Heidegger and Husserl) are required.  While this book itself is somewhat obscure (he was my first religion professor), the opinions expressed are much more far-reaching.

Properly understood, dogma is neither restrictive nor constraining, but rather dogma preserves the capacity for spiritual development within human beings (p. 65). Dogma is not limiting, it is freeing.  It presents the opportunity for human beings to be in communion with God the Person.  So while dogma presents the domain of faith (and therefore it circumscribes certain aspects of the faith) it also places Christians in a position where they can be in direct relationship with the Supreme and Divine Person, which in itself is the epitome of freedom (ibid).

Dogmas in the Christian context are not just a set of teachings, constrained by a person’s sitz im leben.  Rather, they provide the context or the framework for the divine-human relationship.  Dogmas are the interpretation of Christ’s reality as this reality is being extended in human lives…. Christ is the living dogma, universally comprehensive and at work to bring about the whole of salvation (p.67, emphasis mine).”

The content of Christian dogma centers on the Holy Trinity.  In that the Son reveals the Father and the Spirit, the Holy Trinity is the perfection of communion.  Thus, through the divine community of the Holy Trinity, humanity is raised up into eternal and divine communion.

This communion is dialogical and interpersonal.  Fr. Staniloae notes that this dogmatic understanding is unique when compared to faiths apart from Christianity.  Pagan beliefs in a god hold that the persons of gods ultimately dissolve into an impersonal essence.  Judaism and Islam maintain that God is so closed up in Himself that for man no communication with God is possible.

So far it’s been established that in the Christian dogmatic sense man’s relationship with God is interpersonal and dialogic.  In the dogma of the Holy Trinity, “God is a Trinity of persons who have all in common, that is, their entire being, yet are not confused with one another as persons. This implies perfect love (p. 68).”  This also means perfect community and perfect relationship, and the ultimate end for humanity as well, when man and God will be united in perfect community as well.

The dogma of the Incarnation is another crucial matter.  God is not merely united with a man (p.69).  Were this to be so, Christ, as man, would not be in the full communion with the Holy Trinity.   So the two natures – divine and human – are united in one hypostasis, one Person.  “The hypostasis of Christ is the basis of this highest union between two different natures just as a common nature is the bridge that unites persons of the same nature (p. 69).”

So Christ does not become a new species.  He is fully Divine, He is fully human.   As such He becomes the real mediator of our communion with God (ibid), bringing our humanity to Divinity and Divinity to our humanity.  Through Him, then, we experience the fulfilment of our yearning for ultimate meaning (p. 70).

This eternal communion is our because of the resurrection of our Lord.  The resurrection along with the Holy Trinity are what Saint Cyril of Alexandria calls the fundamental dogmas of our faith.  The Father raised the Son, not because the Son was unable to raise Himself, but because whatever the Son does out of love for the Father and obedience to His will  (p. 72).

Fr. Staniloae’s discussion of St. Cyril is worth noting, because he shifts the emphasis found in him and elsewhere within the patristic corpus from incorruptibility to perfected communion: “Living as they did in a period when the ideas of person and of interpersonal communion were still not very well developed, the Fathers, in their treatment of the resurrection, placed greater emphasis on the share that human nature had in the incorruptible divine life. (p. 73)”

This is a very interesting comment, since a great deal of modern or  neo-patristic thought has returned to this emphasis on incorruptibility at the deficit of perfect communion.

The remainder of the chapter is an emphasis on the perfection of communion that comes from union with God, the need for the human body to be perfected in order to participate in the divine communion and the hell that awaits those who do not live in communion with God, a resurrection of eternal solitude (p. 75).

So in this chapter, Fr. Staniloae creates his framework for the need for the Church to be the locus of the tradition of the faith, how it both forms and and is informed by tradition as it progresses.  Moreover, he emphasizes the  central role of natural and supernatural dogma as it helps to set the framework for humanity to progress along the road to theosis and perfect communion with the Divine Person.  This Person, of course, is the Holy Trinity, the ultimate expression of perfect community.  Humanity has access to this participation in divine community through the completely human, completely divine Christ, the Son of the Father, the 2nd person of the Holy Trinity.  Through the resurrection,  which is the complete work of the entire Trinity, perfection is then communicated to the whole human race.

The Experience of God vol 1, chapter 3: Scripture and Tradition

Icon_Philip

There are probably too many essays already that refute (or at least attempt to refute) the Protestant tradition of sola scriptura. The third chapter of Staniloae’s Experience of God – “Scripture and Tradition” – never explicitly names this most important of the Protestant “five solae,” but he certainly answers it, as he responds to its parallel (and, in a morose note, consequential) tradition of scriptural disregard.

Many of us who are products of a Protestant and particularly Evangelical upbringing can remember the old motto “Scripture interpreting Scripture.” This motto attempts to surmount the obvious problem raised by the Reformers (i.e., Luther et al) – if Holy Tradition (or the Magisterium in the West) is to be discarded as an interpretative framework of Scripture, then what should take its place?

The Reformed answer is that Scripture interprets itself, and thus there is no need for a human intermediary. The familiar explanation is that the Holy Spirit Himself is the sole agent of interpretation. This concept of “sole divine agency” is what unifies all five “solae” of the Reformation, in which “sola scriptura” (exclusion of Tradition, especially in human history after the writing of the “original autographs”) is joined by “sola fidei” (exclusion of the necessity of human work); “sola gratia” (exclusion of synergia); “solus Christus” (exclusion of human priesthood and, most likely, the possibility of sacrament); and “soli Deo gloria” (exclusion of veneration to the Theotokos, saints and angels).

Generally, the refutations of sola scriptura focus upon the inconsistencies, if not outright impossibilities, that accrue to the Protestant history of interpretation. It is difficult to proceed under the hermeneutical rubric of “Scripture interpreting Scripture” without at least implicitly referring to some external reference. Some times, that external reference is to an artifact of doctrinal Tradition, which is often referred to as “small o orthodoxy.” This “orthodox” reference accounts for the persistence in Protestantism of doctrines like the Trinity, the Person and work of Christ, and the canonical arrangement of the New Testament. Other times, however, that external reference involves (perhaps unwittingly) the inclusion of a contemporary cultural trend that is contrary to Tradition. Fr John Romanides famously discerned a patterned reference that involved “Frankish” dominance, which seems to account for everything wrong with the West.[i] Other critiques have discerned external references that presently involve an increasing identification with the dominant materialistic worldview.[ii]

But Staniloae responds to the deeper claim of “sole divine agency,” a claim that lies at the heart of the heterodox rejection of the Church and her Tradition. While everything in the Church’s existence (including Scripture) relies upon the complete sufficiency of God, human participation is necessary — both in the writing of Scripture form the Tradition of the Apostles, and in its Apostolic interpretation. There is never a “sole divine agency” in Economy, in which the human is a passive object. There is always a person who says, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1.28).

Christ is always the Revealer, through the “radiation of the Holy Spirit”:

The Word and the Holy Spirit are the two persons who together accomplish and jointly bring to fulfillment the whole of revelation and of its efficacy until the end of the world … Between the Word and the Holy Spirit exists a continuous reciprocity of revelation and both bring about a common revelation of the Father, and a common spiritualization of creation.[iii]

Here it is plain that revelation – both natural and supernatural – continues to be active. In fact, Staniloae’s tone suggests that revelation can only gain in force and depth as it continues through the space-time inaugurated at Creation. Any revelation – especially the written supernatural revelation that is Scripture – cannot be objectified and rendered static in examination. Just at the Epistle to the Hebrews says: For the word of God is living and effectual, and more piercing than any two edged sword; and reaching unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4.12 Douay-Rheims)

But not only is revelation active, it is also personal. Revelation is never an impersonal dynamic or force: neither is it a phenomena framed by a historic narrative and imposed violently upon its members; nor is it an esoteric gnosis reserved for those pre-determined before birth. Revelation is nothing less, and nothing anything else, than a personal work of Christ that is “irradiated” by the Spirit in the Church.

Revelation is given only through communion – and Staniloae has made it very clear that only persons can commune. In natural revelation, the communion between the Creator and His creatures is indirect. But what distinguishes supernatural revelation is that the communication is direct (e.g., I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you – John 15.15 KJV).

Language is the rational memory of communion: and here is the haunting semantic coincidence whereas Christ is known principally as the “Word” of God. He can only be the Father’s revelatory initiative to us. So he penetrates into our consciousness, and reveals God in experience and is remembered in thoughts.

And those thoughts are written in human art. Again, this is the synergistic communion of persons: on one the infinitely transcendent side is God, and on the other is the creature, Man. God reveals personally: Man personally remembers and writes. The significance and necessity of the written word should not be surprising: written language is a relatively unchanging solidification of commonly held memory through history. And Scripture is the written memory of special revelation that is fulfilled and closed in Christ.

As Staniloae puts it: Sacred Scripture is the Son and Word of God who translated himself into words in his work of drawing close to men so that he might raise them up to himself, until the time of his incarnation, resurrection, and ascension as man. Through these words by which he is translated, Christ words upon us to bring us also to that state which he has reached.[iv]

That last statement marks the third characteristic of the agency of the Church in interpreting Scripture: the written narrative of the supernatural revelation of Christ not only reveals the identity of Christ, but also clearly describes His intentions for humanity and all creation. Salvation can be nothing less and nothing other than deification: it is Staniloae’s considerable genius to define revelation in terms not only of Cyrillian Christology, but also of theosis.

In effect, the special revelation that is narrated in the written text of Scripture can only be expressed as a whole by the ecclesial culture of deification – that is, the community that preserves Tradition. Staniloae contends that the Church and Tradition were inaugurated simultaneously, one sustaining the other: in concert, Scripture is interpreted and made meaningful to contemporaneity through the Church’s rhetoric of peace and beauty.

Staniloae suggests, in this chapter, that there is a double peril that results from the fact that Christ is the “active Revealer” of Himself (through the Spirit) in Scripture, in the Church. First: a Christ that is not expressed (i.e., through Tradition and Scripture) does not manifest his effectiveness. And second: the Church is alone capable of understanding and interpreting Scripture effectively.

This not only rules out the possibility of sola scriptura and the idea of “sole divine agency” behind it, but it makes uncertain the ecclesial identity of any community that does not express Him.

Now to the final point: what is the genealogy of Scriptural disregard? That is, the failure to “express Him”? Is it possible that this disregard could have occurred only after the disregard of Tradition?

It seems so. One could take, prima facie at least (a “plain reading of the text”), such a lesson from the story of the Ethiopian eunuch and Philip in Acts 8.30-31: So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him (NKJV). Someone had to elucidate the meaning, and Philip did so allegorically, but only within the parameters of a community that had been infused with revelation, natural and supernatural.

Had it been otherwise, that this community would have ever discarded the oral tradition of the Apostles, there would have been no written tradition to speak of.

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[i] An interesting exemplary quote from Fr Romanides: The attitudes of the West and East Franks toward the Papacy and the Filioque were different, the first being mild, and the second fanatically hard. One of the important reasons for this is that, after 920, the new reform movements gained enough momentum to shape the policies of the East German Franks who took over the Papacy. When the Romans lost the Papacy, the Filioque was introduced into Rome for the first time in either 1009, or at latest by 1014. In the light of the above, we do not have the situation usually presented by European, American, and Russian historians in which the Filioque is an integral part of so-called “Latin” Christendom with a “Greek” Christendom in opposition on the pretext of its introduction into the Creed. (The addition to the Creed was supposedly opposed by the popes not doctrinally, but only as addition in order not to offend the “Greeks.”) What we do have is a united West and East Roman nation in opposition to an upstart group of Germanic races who began teaching the Romans before they really learned anything themselves. Of course, German teachers could be very convincing on question of dogma, only by holding a knife to the throat. Otherwise, especially in the time of imposing the Filioque, the theologians of the new Germanic theology were better than their noble peers, only because they could read and write and had, perhaps, memorized Augustine.

— from Franks, Romans, Feudalism, and Doctrine, part 3 (“The Filioque”), from http://www.romanity.org/htm/rom.03.en.franks_romans_feudalism_and_doctrine.03.htm#s16 (retrieved 7/15/2014)

[ii] Pontifical Biblical Commission, “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” (preface by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger). Presented on March 18, 1994. Retrieved 7/15/2014 at http://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/pbcinter.htm. This is a superior descriptive catalog of various and current hermeneutical approaches to Scripture.

[iii] Staniloae, Experience of God, p30.

[iv] Ibid., p40.

THE EXPERIENCE OF GOD VOLUME 1, CHAPTER 2

Creation-Icon

Staniloae’s theological universe seems drastically opposed to his Swiss contemporary Karl Barth. As we have found in chapter 2, Staniloae’s world is alive with the signs of God. This is no mere romanticism, where we find the infinite in the awesome expanses of landscapes or in the flowering of the inner recesses of the heart. No, Staniloae is representative of an older theological age – the ordered and empowered universe of the Fathers. The universe is meaningful because its creator, sustainer, and consummation is the Triune God. The infinite is bound up in every instance and in every thing.

sta_barth

My understanding of natural revelation has been bound my theological heritage, Western and flowing from two trajectories: Augustine/Aquinas & Barth and Post-Barth. Staniloae’s critique of Western theology I think is spot on. “Western theology has accustomed us to hold, that in natural revelation man is the only active agent. This separation of God from nature, a nature through which God speaks and works…has easily led to various kinds of conceptions that have sought to explain the world exclusively on the basis of an immanent reality” (21). I believe what Staniloae is pointing to when he characterizes Western theology as seeing man as the only active agent in natural revelation is the extreme rationalism found in “natural theology” in the West. (Not that these types of theology have not arisen in the East and/or thrive there) For example, think of the post-Cartesian search for indubitably true proofs for the existence of God. Or, think of anything like Josh McDowell and the evangelical or fundamentalist desire for truth claims based solely in amassing data or driven by an apologetics that creates an iron fortress of “t”ruth around faith. It seems to me that Staniloae sees in this a denial of the graced nature of reality. This brings us to the second half of the quote above. The natural theology that I believe Staniloae is pointing to is a theology that is purely logos and no theos.

Revelation is not something completely alien to humanity. We swim in a world alive with the glory of God. It is either the hardening of our hearts through an over attachment to the lust of the eyes and flesh (which I would argue is not just due to individuals but also emanates in cultures), or the separation of God from the world through the intellect (again, also a cultural emanation as well). Staniloae’s whole cosmology is then quite different than many modern conceptions. There is no supreme gulf between humanity and God – in fact, in Staniloae’s understanding God is constantly present to us, it is the fault of our darkened hearts and weakened wills that we are unable to commune with him personally. We know this because we feel the pangs of regret (18) in our conscience and because we innately pursue meaning (15). We learn a lot about God through natural revelation but it is only through supernatural revelation that the truth of God and our end within Him is clear.

Staniloae’s characterization of Western theology as making natural theology bereft of God may seem odd to those on this side of the 20th century – but if we are aware of the nature and grace debates within Roman Catholic circles and of certain aspects of Lutheran and Reformed theology this characterization stands. I began with mentioning Karl Barth because of his notoriety for rejecting natural theology and the tone that this set for later 20th century theology (Protestant & Catholic (Von Balthasar). Staniloae is not afraid of natural theology because he does not see “natural theology” in the way that Barth and others do. Staniloae is aware of these debates and comes to them from a serious immersion in the fathers of East. Especially important here is St. Maximos the Confessor, who is mentioned multiple times within the second chapter. St. Maximus’s Christo-centric cosmology takes to heart the Pauline and Johannine ideas of Christ as Logos and Mediator and systematizes them in a magnificent way. The salvific economy of Jesus Christ is to come into the world and to raise it back into communion with the Triune God. As the Spirit rests upon the Son in eternity so the Spirit rests upon the Son in His actions for our salvation. The Son has plunged fully into the material world in taking upon himself human nature and has therefore, through the power of the Holy Spirit, confirmed and fully revealed the meaning of creation (35). Nature is not at odds with God but is the very material through which God communicates and communes. Let us not think of “nature” as those with the low-fi vision of scientism do. Rather, nature is creation – not inert matter ready to be poked, prodded and organized. Instead, it is ultimately to be consecrated, elevated, and consumed as our eucharist. Reality now has meaning, not plagued by death or fatigued by an abyss of meaninglessness, but is an eternal communion of love between humanity and God.

How could we dispense with natural theology if this is a key way in which God brings us up in the ways of our Lord? “…the revealed Christ remains and goes on working within creation, that is, he makes the entire revelation perpetually effective to lead believers towards union with himself and towards deification” (36).

On another front – I find it extremely interesting that Staniloae begins his dogmatics by discussing revelation. This fact seems to indicate that Staniloae is quite aware of modernity’s challenges while at the same time not capitulating to modernity’s terms. I mean specifically the modern desire to place an incredible weight on epistemology – how we know what we know – without addressing other issues – e.g. ontology – what is. Again, to bring Barth back into the conversation, we find in Barth’s theological trajectory an intense focus on God revealing God’s self in the face of historicism and modern skepticism. Barth’s move is to abdicate the world of any of God’s presence (at least the earlier Romerbrief Barth). It would then become necessary for T.F. Torrance (referencing Fr Aidan’s comment on Chapter 1) to bridge Barth’s lacunae. Let me quote it here:

I do not deny that there is a proper place for rational argumentation in what is traditionally known as ‘natural theology’, for I find it contradictory to operate with a deistic disjunction between God and the universe, which presupposes belief in the existence of God but assumes at the same time that he is utterly detached and unknowable. Genuine argumentation must take place within the active interrelation between God and the universe, and is argumentation in which theoretical and empirical components in knowledge operate inseparably together, much as they do in the indissoluble fusion of geometry and physics in a ‘relativistic’ understanding of the universe. This demands of us, doubtless, a proper natural theology in which form and content, method and subject-matter, are not torn apart–that is, not a ‘natural theology’ as an independent conceptual system, antecedent to actual or empirical knowledge of God upon which it is then imposed, quite unscientifically, as a set of necessary epistemological presuppositions! (Space, Time and Resurrection, p. 1)

It would also be the impetus as to why Sarah Coakley would argue that if Barth lived now he would not have rejected natural theology.

For Orthodox theology it would be impossible to be faithful to the faith of the Fathers and put aside some form of natural theology. Because of the challenge of scientism, atheism, nihilism, and our generally materialistic society Staniloae’s work is essential for modern Orthodox to engage with in order for us to be able to adequately engage with our challenges now. Or so it seems to me.

 

 

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Chapter four of Theology and the Church by Staniloae entitled “Revelation Through Acts, Words and Images” would be quite beneficial to read alongside these chapters on revelation here in the first volume of the dogmatics. 

The Experience of God Volume 1, Chapter 1

In the rather frenetic initial scenes of Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, Holmes holds Watson back from attacking Lord Blackwood, not so much for kindness to Blackwood but because of the glass spike protruding out from Blackwood’s hands that would have seriously hurt Watson if he had moved in any closer.  “Observe,” says Holmes as the spike comes into focus.  “How did you see that?” asks Watson.  Holmes responds, “Because I was looking for it.”

In a sense, this is similar to how Fr. Dimitru Stăniloae understands the idea of natural revelation.1  The imprint of God, who is the creator of the cosmos and the world in which we live (and us as well), is evident in all things.  As an Orthodox Christian whose understanding is that there really is no separation between natural and supernatural (or biblical) revelation, God’s creative act is everywhere revealed.  We see it because we know to look for it. [p. 1]

Fr. Stăniloae presents natural revelation in a sort of hierarchy.  First there is the cosmos and all within it, including the world in which we live.  It is rational (meaning, as I understand it, able to be understood and adapted), because it created by the conscious Reason, and so naturally it bears the marks of the One that created it.  Alongside the cosmos there is humanity, which, like the cosmos is rational.  Unlike the cosmos, however, humanity is able to know its own nature.  This means that humanity is superior to, or at a higher level than, the cosmos. [p. 3-4]

Both the cosmos and humanity are at a lower level, however, than the One who created both.  A hierarchy is presented then, where the cosmos are at the lowest level, then man, then God.

As Fr. Stăniloae presents the Orthodox understanding of natural revelation, humanity is tasked with the responsibility of transforming the world — adapting it and learning about it, because in discovering more about the world, man learns more about himself.  Ultimately, however, this brings about the question of meaning: what’s the point of all of this and what is humanity’s ultimate destination?  Learning more about self, learning more about the world, would be rather pointless, circular and dead-ended if that’s all there was.  Questions about meaning and reason inevitably lead to questions about eternity and also to the One who created everything.  And this is where exploration and understanding of the Personal Reality (the One who created everything) moves beyond the simple discovery or uncovering of the effects of His creative act to a much more personal and relational association between God and His creation, man.

In this world, man embarks on a continuous quest for meaning, never really reaching any kind of satisfactory conclusion.  This lack of conclusion creates a yearning in man, a desire in his heart for ultimate meaning.   This quest for meaning is only fulfilled when man participates fully and eternally in the infinity of the supreme Personal reality (God – the eternal participation we would call theosis.) [cf. p. 11].

Evident throughout this chapter is the dominance of the thought of Saint Maximos the Confessor, especially in several passages of the  Ambigua.  Many references with respect the relationship between God and His creation, and the revelation of God by analogy within the creation can be found there.2

Ultimately, this chapter can be summarized thus: God created man and the cosmos.  The cosmos is intelligible and can be transformed by man.  Man has the same rationality but also is endowed with freedom, conscience and reason, putting him at a higher level than the cosmos.  Man is on a quest for meaning, and God’s creative act is detectable in both the cosmos and man himself.  Man’s quest for meaning leads to ultimate questions of eternity and the One who exists beyond (at a higher level than) either the cosmos or man.  This then leads to a yearning for the eternal relationship with God, who is Personal Reality.  Ending with the beginning, God is so evident in the cosmos and man that there is really no distinguishing between what is naturally revealed and what is supernaturally revealed.

 

 

 

 

 


ENDNOTES

1 Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae, The Experience of God, Volume 1. (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994).  All references will be quoted in the text of this study.

2 An excursus on the text found in the Ambigua of St. Maximos will be forthcoming and linked here.  Likewise, some thoughts on the idea of Analogia Entis, unless someone beats me to it.