How Do We Know God?


How do we know God? The question is simple and straightforward – until we begin to answer it.

I have written lately much about icons, and particularly the Seventh Council’s contention that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” This simple statement has such a richness of implication that it is hard to ask too much of it. It obviously means to say that there are ways we know God that are not confined to the words of Scripture. Not that icons are ever properly contradictory to Scripture – but present what they do in the manner that they do it is clear that we encounter God in ways that transcend the written word.

Icons, canonically, have something of a strict control about them. We can’t make icons just any way we want (though the pressures of the modern world have stretched this stricture to its limits). They have this strict control, I believe, not because of their weakness, but because of their power. Just as the written word has a tremendous power – and thus has its strictures as well – so images have their boundaries.

But the very revelatory character of images points to something beyond both Scripture and Icon – which is a ubiquity to God and His self-revelation. In simpler terms – God is everywhere and there’s nothing we can do about it.

It is important to note that the Church is not the sole dispenser of knowledge of God – and even as we dispense what we have, we do not have what is most key in the knowledge of God – we do not control the action of God. We cannot say to someone, “If you do this, then you will know God.” Were it so easy, so straightforward, seminary would likely be limited to one class, and all of our priests would seem wise. But such is not the case.

We we have been given is true and faithful and what we have we can share. But still each person must themselves encounter the true and living God in such a way that what has been made known to us in Tradition becomes true for them in an existential manner.

Of this none of us have control. To some great extent, even the person who is seeking to know God is not in control. We never truly know our own heart – and though convinced of one thing with regard to our heart – it is entirely possible for something else to be the case. The heart is mystery – even to ourselves – and outside of the clear light of God’s revelation we do not know even this most intimate thing about ourselves.

We add to this finally the fact that God Himself is free. He is not simply the Absolute and thus confined to His own attributes. In Orthodox understanding, we begin with God as person before we proceed to say anything else. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and His being (in a logical sense) rises from that act of communion. Thus God is “free” as philosophers would say, even of His own Substance. Thus I cannot predict God or tell someone else what they may do and how He will respond.

I can recall in my earliest Christian days making just such a promise. I knew very little and was simply a very zealous Jesus Freak. I recall in a personal encounter with someone making a specific promise about what God would do if they would do thus and such. The details of the story are not important at the moment. But I recall that as soon as I had uttered such a rash promise, I had a feeling that I had crossed a boundary that should have not been crossed. I had no theology to tell me so, only my inner sense of my relationship with God. Somehow, it seemed clear to me that I was not the senior partner in this relationship and my rashness had forgotten that fact.

I recall praying (under my breath) and asking forgiveness for my rashness and begging God not to hold it against the person with whom I was talking, or against me. The good God, apparently forgave me, and did what was asked, but I also knew it had been pure grace and an act of kindness – no necessity bound His action, least of all my promises in His name.

We know God as He makes Himself known to us. Within the life of the Church, having submitted our lives to Holy Tradition and the discipleship of Christ, it is possible to point to sacraments, to Scripture, to icons, to all the various things God has set forth that we may know Him. But outside of that life, there are no holds barred. God is not willing that any should perish and will make Himself known however He chooses – and no one can gainsay it. God is God.

But the Tradition would tell us quite the same thing.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


18 responses to “How Do We Know God?”

  1. spaceman123 Avatar

    I enjoyed your thoughts on “How Do We Know God”. Very well written and inspirational to read.

  2. sibbesian Avatar

    Thanks for a very interesting post. I suppose my comment relates to the words of Hebrews 1:1,2- ‘In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways but in these last days he has spoken to us through his son.’ That ultimately we come to know God through His revelation in Jesus Christ. That revelation can only be know through Scripture illumined by the Holy Spirit since that is the only access we have to Jesus. I thus wonder how as you state revelatory images can point to something beyond Scripture.
    I very much appreciate your emphasis upon the sovereignty of God and the freedom of his action. It is a welcome antidote to some common misconceptions. However we must also be careful to remember that God is also faithful to His promises, which in turn encourages us to faith.

  3. fatherstephen Avatar


    I utterly agree that we only know God as He has made Himself known to us in Jesus Christ. However, though I am fully trustful of the Scripture, as an Orthodox Christian, I recognize in the ongoing life of the Church (as was true before the writing of the New Testament, and as is true in the promises of Christ, Christ also makes Himself known to us in the “breaking of the bread” as well as coming into our hearts and “supping with us,” etc.

    Nothing that might be revelatory of Christ would I think of as contradictory to Scripture or the Tradition of the Church (there are not 2 Christs), but sometimes other experiences might admit a fullness of insight that reading alone might not yield. Simply because God is sovereign. But I do not mean to imply that there is any revelation of God apart from Jesus Christ. I do, however, disagree that Scripture illumined by the Holy Scripture is the only access we have to Jesus. This sola Scriptura is a novel idea in Christianity – not part of the teaching of the Fathers (at least in the way it has come to be used by modern Protestants). Certainly I would agree that other things agree with it – but the Sacraments of the Church (which are taught us in Scripture) and many other things are means by which we know God, though again, these are not had while ignoring Scripture. But Sola Scriptura has deficiencies, at least as most often stated in modern settings.

    The ongoing worship life of the Church within its canonical bounds is certainly revelatory and itself an interpretation of Scripture under the illumination of the Spirit. But such matters are usually excluded by Protestants because they do not have a worship life that can be described as within canonical bounds or being guided by the Tradition of the Church.

    Forgive any misunderstanding.

  4. sibbesian Avatar

    Thanks for your humble and irenic reply. May I however probe a little further. Yes, Christ makes Himself know to us in the sacraments, but not in a new way. Rather we find here a visible word that affirms to us the promises of Scripture. Could I ask you to clarify a couple of your comments. First you write, ‘sometimes other experiences might admit a fullness of insight that reading alone might not yield.’ What are these experiences and does it imply an insufficiency in Scripture?
    Secondly, you state, ‘The ongoing worship life of the Church within its canonical bounds is certainly revelatory and itself an interpretation of Scripture under the illumination of the Spirit.’ Does this statement in fact place the experience of the church and Tradition above the authority of Scripture? If it does, does that then detract from the finality of God’s revelation in Christ?

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Orthodoxy sees no contradiction between Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. But just as the Nicene Creed found it necessary to use words that were not within the vocabulary of Scripture, in order to safeguard the revelation as we have received in Christ, so other things that are part of the Tradition also have value and importance. The doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture is not language that has traditionally been part of Holy Orthodoxy, though it was Holy Orthodoxy who, under the guidance of the Spirit, ratified what is today the Canon of Holy Scripture.

    Probably the best commentary on all of this is in the small volume by St. Irenaeus of Lyons (late 2nd century) called On the Apostolic Preaching. There’s a new edition done by Fr. John Behr

    There, Irenaeus, answering the early gnostic heretics and others, presents perhaps the best understanding of the Orthodox Christian understanding of the relationship between Scripture, Tradition, the Church, etc.

  6. sibbesian Avatar

    Thanks for your response. I’m not quite sure you have answered my two questions, although I concede we may be divided here by a common language! I take it we are agreed that the Nicene Creed did not add anything to Scripture but clarified what the church catholic accepted as the orthodox interpretation of Scripture? Other things may have value and importance like Nicea but are they revelatory and do they have an authority that stands above Scripture? Is it possible that Tradition might conflict with Scripture since by its nature Tradition accrues? Also what kind of authority and finality does Scripture have if it is not sufficient- even if that term is a comparatively recent one?
    Sorry for the long list of questions but thanks for your patience and the suggested reading.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar


    Some further reflections –

    It seems somewhat problematic to the Orthodox when Protestants speak of the sufficiency of Scripture – particularly if the Scriptures are removed from their proper context – that is the Holy Orthodox Church of Christ. We have a 2,000 year history of self-appointed teachers of Scriptures who stood outside the Church and have plagued the faithful with heresy, all of whom claimed the Scriptures: Arius, the Gnostics, the Montanists, etc.

    It is in the life and context of the Church, which is the body of Christ, the “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” that we read the Scriptures under the direction of the Holy Spirit. If we remove the Scriptures from that proper context what results is confusion – which is a good description of Christianity in most of its forms today.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar


    Good questions, indeed. Revelation does not add to Scripture, but clarifies it. The Church has known the fullness of the Truth since its inception. Tradition does not accrue, it simply speaks louder and louder. But in no way does one part of Tradition contradict another part of Tradition – in that sense, even the Scriptures are Tradition – its written portion – and have something of a unique authority. But we are people of the Church, not people of the book as Muslims would describe us. God the Word is the authority within the Church, and the Scripture agrees with Him. It’s authority comes from Christ, thus we do not contradict it. But, obviously we must interpret it, which we do in light of all that has been given us, seeking to find nothing novel or inventive in our interpretation.

    Thus later inventions such as dispensationalism and other novel schemes find no place in Orthodoxy.

    I would grant the word sufficiency if it’s not meant in some sense of “self-sufficient.” Down that road lies madness. God is sufficient. The Scriptures bear witness to God and His self-revelation in Christ.

    The Orthodox do not have a “low” view of the authority of Scripture, but we have always resisted efforts to turn the Bible into the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ not the Bible. The Church does not contradict Scripture because it would be like God contradicting Himself. Neither does Holy Tradition contradict the Bible, for the same reason. But we tend not to break all these things up into separate categories. It is all the Life of God given to us for our salvation. For which we give thanks.

  9. sibbesian Avatar

    Thanks again for a helpful and stimulating response. Certainly your point about reading Scripture in the context of the church is one that is much overlooked especially in contemporary Protestantism. As Luther remarked if everyone has the right to a private interpretation then everyone is left to make their own path to hell. Yet history has shown, as with Luther, that often God can use an individual to call the church back to the faith of Scripture. I think you also are right in pointing out in the light of a post-modern culture how we need to have a true and faithful interpretation of Scripture.
    I do however have a couple of problems with your final paragraph. You are of course right that it is the church that is the body of Christ and not Scripture. But is it not the Word that calls the church into being and not vice versa? I don’t think that Scripture sustains the idea that the Church is the Body of Christ in the same way that the Bible is the Word of God. One is figurative, the other is literal. Whereas ‘all Scripture is God breathed’ the church in the New Testament is clearly fallible- even the apostles as in Galatians 2.
    I’ve read the text of St Irenaeus that you suggested. In the light of our discussion I was struck by how it is suffused by Scripture. I also appreciate it’s strong Trinitarian influence. However I wonder if implicit in the author’s argument is the case for the ‘sufficiency’ of Scripture? He seeks, he says, to teach nothing that the apostles haven’t taught. Also his whole argument is rooted in Scripture. The Holy Spirit foreshadows Christ in the Old Testament and brings Him to birth in the life of the believer. St Irenaeus’ whole argument is an appeal to Scripture- so I’m just not sure exactly where Tradition fits in.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    But his appeal to Scripture was precisely a Traditional appeal. He likens Scripture to a mosaic of the King, and the Tradition as what he called the “Apostolic Hyposthesis,” the traditional teaching of the Apostles, much like the Apostles’ Creed. With the hyposthesis if the mosaic is disturbed it may be properly reassembled. Without it, he said the heretics made the image into that of a dog, etc. The Traditional knowledge of the Church, which is none other than the knowledge of Jesus Christ, is precisely what is required to read Scripture. The Church had to know this, in order to rightly determine the limits of the Canon. The New Testament did not declare the Canon, the Church did. If your doctrine of Church, is the weak invisible company of believers of Protestants, of course it is not sufficient. If your Church is the visible and quite tangible Tradition of the Body of Christ as embodied in the Holy Orthodox Church, and no where else in its fullness, then the problem is a different kettle of fish.

    The Orthodox speak as they do about Tradition, as the Fathers themselves did, because we can. Others disparage it, because they do not have Holy Tradition and cannot argue in its favor without undermining their entire claim to anything of Christ. Christ established His Church and has kept His promises. How could He do otherwise. But those promises were to His Apostles and His successors, not just to anyone who suddenly declared himself to be the Church. That would be and is today, somewhat absurd.

    We live in strange historical times. Luther could not likely have become Orthodox, though that avenue was explored. But today, that avenue is indeed available. And there is no reason to turn away from that which God has preserved for us. Or at least that’s my understanding.

    I’ve seen most of the other results, and am glad to be where I am.

  11. AR Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I just wanted to say how helpful this and all your other posts have been. I’m aware I bring my questions and hangups over Orthodoxy here so it may seem I’m just coming to be argumentative. However, I see the Spirit of truth in every one of your posts and appreciate so much your willingness to answer the questions of those of us who come to you from other corners of Christianity.

    I promised a worried friend, when my husband and I first started looking into Orthodoxy, that I would not, in order to enter a church, drop any belief I had confessed to be true unless I knew I was going to find it waiting for me, transfigured, on the other side of the door. In so many ways that is really what I see here. I’m always hesitant to challenge something that seems, in words, to contradict what I know to be true because I’ve often found that the truth that has captured my heart in Protestantism is a sort of dried and sliced version of something fresher and truer, that often explodes words, in Orthodoxy.

    Since I said something negative about the church we’re visiting in another post I suppose I should clarify that most of what we find there is very compelling. In particular I find it’s very easy to call the senior preist “father” because he’s so paternal. Something I’ve never experienced before.

  12. jacob Avatar

    sibbesian Says:

    That ultimately we come to know God through His revelation in Jesus Christ. That revelation can only be know through Scripture illumined by the Holy Spirit since that is the only access we have to Jesus.

    The God and the Lord Jesus we read about in Scriptures appeared to and interacted with people in person, in dreams, in visions, by prophecy, etc., as well as via the words of His prophets and the written accounts of those words – i.e., the Scriptures. The Logos appeared to and interacted with people before His incarnation, during His incarnation, and after His resurrection, and did so apart from the person accessing Him via the Scriptures.

    That is the God that the Scriptures teach us about and record and reveal.

    I find it odd that one would say that the God the Scriptures portray is not like that God anymore.

  13. sibbesian Avatar

    Thanks for your posts. I struggle with a number of your ideas. You seem to place the church above Scripture. You also seem to identify the church with Christ himself, thus coming to the idea of the infallibility of the church. I also struggle with the idea of equating Scripture and Tradition. You have however prompted me to look again at the Patristics and Orthodoxy. So hopefully I’ll get back in touch when I have done so. I’m sure I’ll have lots more questions!

  14. fatherstephen Avatar


    Some of the best reading I’ve ever done on the subject was some years ago in the writings of Fr. Georges Florovsky, of blessed memory. His little volume, bible Church, Tradition is exquisite. Most of it is on line (I found one link broken) at this url. It’s worth looking at.

  15. MuleChewingBriars Avatar

    Sibbesian’s first assertion “We have no access to Jesus apart from the Scriptures illuminated by the Holy Spirit” is the very attitude that impelled me from the Reformed version of the Faith into fullness of Orthodoxy.

    Although the Reformed rejoice to speak of the “illumination of the Spirit” in the handling of Scripture, in practice, since the acquisition of the Spirit is so arduous and difficult, they often prefer to utilize the tools of academic scholarship. This leads to a defacto Magisterium of academic systematic theologians who act as “gatekeepers” for the Holy Spirit. Eventually, it leads to a questioning of the Scriptures themselves, since the tools used to handle the Scriptures are posited as being prior to the Scriptures.

    I don’t think that there is any way the icons “go beyond what is written”. I still don’t think that is possible. However, there are other ways of knowing besides the extraction of propositions from a text. There is a part of us that needs the text, and needs to meditate on the text. Too often, we Orthodox fall very short in that, or prefer to leave it to the clergy.

    Nevertheless, Reformed Christianity reminds me a great deal of a group of ardent dance students trying to learn salsa dancing from a book when there are master dance teachers available in a number of studios. I think this was what St. Paul had in mind when he spoke of the Corinthians as “living epistles”

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think that I may have ill-chosen words in speaking of going beyond Scripture, except in the sense of the mode of knowing being different. You can know that which is revealed and confirmed in Scripture, but have come to it through a different mode (Sacrament, icon, etc.) and would likely never have seen it without those modes. That may be a more accurate version of what I meant to say.

  17. moralsandethics Avatar

    You can know God by your Self Instinct. That is a natural belief in every human Kind.

    Below is the story which explains the same.

    BELIEF in God is as natural as any instinct can be. An atheist asked Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq

    how could he convince him about the existence of God. Coming to know that the man had

    gone several times on sea voyages, Imam asked him “Have you ever been caught in a

    fierce storm in middle of nowhere, your rudder gone, your sails torn away, trying

    desperately to keep your boat afloat?” The answer was `Yes’. Then Imam asked: “And

    sometimes perhaps even that leaking boat went down leaving you exhausted and helpless

    on the mercy of raging waves?” The answer was again `Yes’.

    Then Imam asked: “Was not there, in all that black despair, a glimmer of hope in your

    heart that some unnamed and unknown power could still save you?” When he agreed,

    Imam said: “That power is God.”

    That atheist was intelligent. He knew the truth when he saw it.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    Good story. But the God who does these things. Who is He? This can only be made known through the revelation of Jesus Christ. The nature God could be anybody, even pagan.

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