Knowledge that Saves


It is perhaps unfortunate that our English language (as well as the Greek and many other Indo-European variations) do not make a clear distinction between knowing something as a fact, and a different kind of knowing which requires participation in the actual life and reality of that which we know. Thus it is possible for me to know a great deal about the history of bread-making in 16th century France, even though I did not live in the 16th century, have never been to France, and only know what I know because I have studied it (I do not in fact know anything about this subject, but simply chose it as an example). On the other hand, it is possible for me to have studied the beliefs and teachings of the 1st century Church and yet have no knowledge whatsoever of the God for whom these early Christians willingly gave their lives.

Thus we can see a particular use of the word to know. It may mean nothing more than the mastery of facts, requiring nothing more than memory and an understanding of how those facts fit in which other facts of a similar time. We could even give such knowledge a name and call it “expert knowledge.”

There is another form of knowledge, frequently used in Scripture, which refers to a direct, experiential knowledge, in which we only know what we know because we have participated in it and, to some extent, have become part of what we know. Thus we can speak of knowing God because we have come to have a share in His life. This kind of knowledge presupposes that God is not an inert piece of data awaiting its assimilation into the greater database of our accummulated knowledge. Instead, we must assume in this kind of knowledge, that God is free, and can only be known because He makes Himself known. And we can also assume that I have come to know Him only because I have freely entered into relationship with Him and in some manner that is not necessarily disclosed, I have come to know Him. To some degree His life has become my life and my life has become His. I know Him, thus, in something of the same manner in which I know myself.

It is the Christian teaching that this latter form of knowledge is “saving” knowledge. Knowledge about things (or God) may fill our head with data, and may make it possible for us to score higher on certain tests, but it does nothing to us and requires nothing of us other than a certain dedication of time to acquire the knowledge.

The second form of knowledge is indeed “saving” knowledge. We are saved by this “knowledge” not because it enables us to pass a test (indeed I have found it almost useless in most graduate level studies of religion), but because it requires a change in us – a change that is, in fact, being conformed to the very image of God Himself. His life is becoming my life and my life His. I am becoming more like Him. That we use “knowledge” to express this relationship is partly our Semitic heritage (Hebrew used knowledge in this same sense) and partly that we have found no other word to say exactly what we mean. We could say that we are finding “union” with God and it would be correct. But though the Tradition uses this word, it still prefers “knowledge.” “Knowledge” seems somehow to maintain the distinction between knower and known in a way that union does not. “Union,” if used in the form it has in the Far East, may presume that all distinctions disappear. This would not be the Christian gospel. The more fully I know God, the more fully I truly become what I was created to be. I am more “Stephen” than I would be otherwise.

It is this knowledge that we seek as Christians. Studying can be a means of both kinds of knowledge. It can be an occasion for gaining expert knowledge and it can become the occasion for saving knowledge. My experience is that I study much slower if I am seeking saving knowledge.

But, wonderfully, saving knowledge can be had in immeasureable ways even by the unlearned. The village idiot may have more saving knowledge than the village scholar, though not necessarily. The future of the Church needs scholars, but without saving knowledge it will not even be the Church.

Always and everywhere, my heart should be set towards saving knowledge. It need not be at the expense of expert knowledge, but I should never seek to substitute expert knowledge for saving knowledge. It may preach – but it will offer a very meagre fare to its listeners. The Church’s contention is that saving knowledge can be had from Scripture and from icons – though both can be used merely for expert knowledge. But almost all in our modern life, driven as it is by the acquisition and distribution of data, can quickly become little more than expert knowledge.

To acquire saving knowledge of God, all that we approach must be approached as we would a person for whom we have the deepest reverence and who can give us what we want only as a generous gift and never as an answer to the demands we make. Thus I hear the Scriptures and bow my head, “Glory to Thee, O God, Glory to Thee.” I approach an icon, not in a hurry but with the recognition that I behold heaven through this tiny window and with the attention of my heart may perceive that heaven is beholding me.

And with each encounter comes something more than I can express – a knowledge that may have words to describe it – but once described so clearly transcends the description that it seems a futile effort. Silence has a way of surrounding this knowledge.

May God save us through the knowledge of His beloved Son, and give us the life that He alone can give. May we know Him even as we ourselves are known.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


20 responses to “Knowledge that Saves”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    The photo is courtesy of some friends who took it while touring Russia in the 90’s. It is a ruined Church, though the framework remains. We must build on the framework Christ has given us, it seems to me, and let the Church he established live among us.

  2. nancy Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    One correction. The photo was taken in 2005. While there, we saw many hopeful signs of the revival of the Orthodox Faith in the rebuilding of churches and monasteries which had been destroyed or defaced by the Soviets. This photo was a stark and poignant reminder of the Soviet past amidst the rebirth of faith that we witnessed elsewhere.

    I very much appreciate your distinction between the “knowledge” learned in books and college classes and the saving knowledge of the believer. May God grant me the path toward the latter.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The ascendency of the “expert” knowledge vs saving knowledge of which you speak is also part of the the 2-storey universe is it not?

  4. Richard Collins Avatar


    Are you speaking of the ‘noetic life’ when you speak of ‘saving knowledge’? The divine deep calling to the depths within us?

    We covered some of this on a recent theology of the Icon course I attended in Cambridge – very interesting stuff!

    Is there any connection with the KJV translation of human sexual union as ‘to know’ with this idea of ‘saving knowledge’ which is a ‘union with God’, rather than just a rationalisation of data?

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  6. David_Bryan Avatar

    Very timely post. Faith as encounter, I think, is what makes the difference between Orthodoxy as an aesthetically pleasing Museum of History and Religion, and Orthodoxy as the living knowledge of the True God, of conscious awareness of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar


    I’m not sure if I’m speaking about the “noetic life” when I speak of this, primarily because I can’t recall ever speaking about the “noetic” life. I know the phrase and know its meaning, more or less, but I’m not sure I find it particularly meaningful for me. I really want to avoid a vocabulary that is so specific that only another expert can understand me. So I avoid terms like noetic, etc. I would however have no trouble speaking of the Divine deep calling to the depths within us. That’s language I understand.

    There is a strain of Orthodox writing that uses a lot of specialized vocabulary. I either read very little in those books (I lose interest and start reading something else) or don’t read them at all. I don’t make this as a judgment (I’m sure the writers are great Christians), it’s just that I can’t imagine having a conversation that sounded like that and keeping a straight face. I am a simple man – trying to get saved.

    Please don’t read my statement as any sort of judgment. I think it is quite possible to know God without the special vocabulary of nous and noetic, and that such vocabulary can lead us into thinking we know something because we have special words for it. Thus I avoid special words when I can. I have enough delusion in my life as is.

    But if you find it helpful – it’s good Orthodox language.

  8. Richard Collins Avatar

    Thanks Father,

    Yes – there’s a risk that in trying to understand how we can ‘know God’ we end up rationalising the very ‘knowing’ itself!

    I think my point was that, in coming into Orthodoxy, I’m trying to synthesise a number of different (Orthodox) ideas I’ve read and heard and so wondered whether your comment about ‘saving knowledge’ tied in with the idea of ‘nous’ which I’ve heard others expound.

    I think it was Tom Wright who said that we ALL have ‘jargon’ and that the purpose of technical language is in order to convey ideas quickly (it would be hard to speak dr-to-dr without medical jargon, simply because it would take 3 times as long!), but that the ‘truth’ wasn’t in the jargon itself and that jargon/doctrines etc.. needed eternal ‘unpacking’ to help others appropriate the ‘real’ truth which they articulated.

    So your blog is a good example of someone who is always trying to ‘unpack’ the more complex language/ideas.

    Thanks again.


  9. fatherstephen Avatar


    Please forgive me if my comment seemed rude or dismissive of the languge of nous. I genuinely mean that I’m not entirely sure when it comes to knowledge whether I should attibute something to the nous or just my mind, etc. And I am sincere when I think that this kind of introspection (looking at knowledge itself) can quickly be delusional.

    The only measure I have found of value (for me) has been the measure of love of my enemy. Mercy and kindness are fairly clear and I know that if they are not present then everything else is of no use.

    In knowing God, I have stated it in this fashion: we only know God to the extent that we love our enemy.

    I have read Orthodox works for about 30 years – some have more jargon and some have less. The less jargon in the book, the more I find it helpful and useful (as a priest and someone who teaches the faith to others). Those that use too much jargon I try to keep out of the hands of catechumens and out of the hands of the faithful for as long as I can.

    A certain amount is unavoidable, since Orthodoxy is indeed different. But the less the better.

  10. Richard Collins Avatar

    Thanks Father – no offense taken!

    This catechumen will take your good advice and avoid excessively technical books!

    I remember listening to a show from ‘Our life in Christ’ where Steve and Bill said that one of the best bits of advice they had had, as new converts, was NOT to read the Philokalia etc… but just to read the Gospels.

    Sometimes we can be so preoccupied with knowledge (a western trait) that we fail to actually listen to the voice of Christ speaking loud and clear through his Gospels!

    Thank you for your kind comment on my blog. I have no problem with your linking anyone there!

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    Richard, I’m sure people will be blessed by your writing. I sometimes think we make Orthodoxy too difficult (it can be a bit exotic at first) and forget that it really is about God, about repentance and being changed by the grace of God. I do not know how my catechesis compares to that of other priests – but I strive to keep it simple and even have catechumens fast very simply at first, trying to learn first off how to link their fasting and their prayer – and I keep both simple. There is a very natural rhythm to both fasting and prayer and it is this I want them to know.

    I pretty much forbid people to read labels when fasting. In America milk products are in almost all food so they are largely unavoidable. We are eating in a manner of fasting, not in a manner of kosher, and I do not want people thinking of fasting as though it were the Orthodox version of kosher. They will do harm to themselves.

    I have been told that I am a “gentle” priest or “easy” or various such words, but not if people are actually doing the real work. Eating kosher is easy. Forgiving your enemy is hard. I know far too many Orthodox who fast like monks and then fight like animals with their brothers and sisters in Christ. This is not at all right. I rather take things slowly and never overlook what is important.

  12. Richard Collins Avatar


    My own priest takes exactly the same line as yourself. At the moment I’m also learning to link up fasting and prayer, and am also learning to ‘move’ with the rhythms of the church. It’s like learning a new ‘skill’ (or should that be relationship?) and takes time and practice.

    I also heard someone say (funny how one can never remember who it was!) that the measure of ones theosis is the degree to which they love the person they hate the most. Ouch! That stings….shows how far I’ve got to go – Lord have mercy!

  13. David Avatar

    When I read you posts about “knowledge” and what you mean by it, I can’t help but insert the word “experience”. It seems that’s what you’re getting at (of course, I may be mistaken). Experience is knowledge you gain in the first person as opposed to knowledge you gain in the second person, which I might call study.

  14. Richard Collins Avatar


    Like the difference between knowledge ‘of’ as opposed to knowledge ‘about’?

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    Richard and David,

    I think that much of the debate of Palamism versus Barlaam, etc., despite the various technical language that was required, was to safeguard the reality of “experiential knowledge,” however it may be termed. And to safeguard it as the true basis of our relationship with God. The danger was to substitute “revealed theology” and the “reasoning” based on that revelation for true theology. Christ did not come in order to give us more to think about. He came that we might have Life and that more abundantly. The abundant life occurs because His life becomes our life, and in so doing, we also know Him because of our union with Him.

    And thus, the great danger, always warned against in Orthodox theology, is “delusion” because there can be no greater danger to a theology which has an ultimate basis in experienced reality. It does not nullify the validity of that knowledge, it just says that it is so important we must pay close attention to ourselves in the process of our spiritual life.

  16. Richard Collins Avatar


    When you speak of Spiritual Delusion (prelest) as a risk arising from ‘experienced knowledge’ I can’t help thinking of some of the ideas I encountered during my time with the charismatic evangelicals. The ‘experiences’ that people have (and I, in fact, had) are very, very really – and I would be hard to pushed to say that none of it was from God. Yet, that ‘tradition’ of the Christian faith makes a great deal out of deriving theology from ‘experience’, and a fair amount of said theology would now make me baulk.

    How do the Orthodox ‘safeguard’ themselves from Prelest?

  17. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    Father, The Spanish make a distinction between knowing a fact (empirical) which is the verb Saber and being acquainted with (existential) which is the verb Conocer.

    Hinduism teaches that we are under the spell of “maya” or illusion until we are enlightened. Only then can we become acquainted with true Realty. For Christians, the spell is broken when we are Baptized and Chrismated, but we can continue in illusion if we do not adhere to self-denial and the way of the Cross.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    Alice, it is interesting that English, with its massive vocabulary does not do with its words what many other languages do, Spanish being a good example.

  19. Richard Collins Avatar

    Father, Alice:

    It’s the same with German – Wissen (to know a fact) and Kennen (to know about a person/place).

    Very interesting!

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman


    Having been in a group that sought the direct experience of Christ without any of the safe guards of the Church, I’d like to try to answer your question on the Church’s safeguards to prelest.

    1 Obedience: when we are brought into the Church we swear allegence to her by rejecting all heresy past and present. Legalistically, such an act is impossible. However, we are simply saying, “thy will, not mine be done”. There is no private experience, only personal experience that must be placed within the context of the Church.

    2. The Gospel as revealed in the life of the Church, especially in the Divine Liturgy, the cycle of liturgical services and the icons.

    3. Confession not with a “make me better” attitude, but approached with an attitude of desire for real metanoia–transformation.

    4. The Cross–it is only during Holy Week that the Church hymns the beauty and wonder of the Bridal Chamber into which our Lord calls us. At the same time we are reminded that only Christ Himself can prepare us to receive His love so that we may be with Him. He does that by a continuing act of extreme humility as the icon of the same name shows us.

    Father, if I am off base with my perceptions, please correct them and me.

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