Vladimir Lossky on Faith

In St. Paul, knowledge of God writes itself into a personal relationship expressed in terms of reciprocity [exchange]: reciprocity with the object of theology (which, in reality, is a subject), reciprocity also with those to whom the theological word is addressed. At its best, it is communion: I know as I am known. Before the development of Christian theology, this mystery of communion appears absent from Greek thought: it is found only in Philo, that is to say, in a partially vlad_lossky_200biblical context. Theology, then, is located in a relationship of revelation where the initiative belongs to God, while implying a human response, the free response of faith and love, which the theologians of the Reformation have often forgotten. The involvement of God calls forth our involvement. The theological quest supposes therefore the prior coming of what is quested, or rather of Him Who has already come to us and is present in us: God was the first to love us and He sent us His Son, as St. John says. This coming and this presence are seized by faith which thus underlies, with priority and in all necessity, theological thought. Certainly, faith is present in all walks, in all sciences of the human spirit, but as supposition, as working hypothesis: here, the moment of faith remains burdened with an uncertainty which proof alone could clear. Christian faith, on the contrary, is adherence to a presence which confers certitude, in such a way that certitude, here, is first. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the manifestation of realities unseen (Heb. 11:1). What one quests is already present, precedes us, makes possible our questing itself. “Through faith, we comprehend (we think) how the ages have been produced” (Heb. 11:3). Thus faith allows us to think, it gives us true intelligence. Knowledge is given to us by faith, that is to say, by our participatory adherence to the presence of Him Who reveals Himself. Faith is therefore not a psychological attitude, a mere fidelity. It is an ontological relationship between man and God, an internally objective relationship for which the catechumen prepares himself, and through which baptism and chrismation are conferred upon the faithful: gifts which restore and vivify the deepest nature of man. “In Baptism,” said Irenaeus, “one receives the immutable canon of truth.” It is first the “rule of faith,” transmitted to the initiated. But this regula fidei (Tertullian, Irenaeus) implies the very faculty of receiving it. “The heretics who have perverted the rule of truth,” St. Irenaeus wrote, “preach themselves when they believe that they are preaching Christianity (Adversus haereses, Book III). This faculty is the personal existence of man, it is his nature made to assimilate itself to divine life – both mortified in their state of separation and death and vivified by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Faith as ontological participation included in a personal meeting is therefore the first condition for theological knowledge.

From Introduction to Orthodox Theology, pp. 16-17.


Lossky can be notoriously hard to read – partly because his thought is very careful and condensed. The most striking thing to me in this passage is its conclusion – recognizing that theological faith is participation and personal meeting. His careful distinction between the faith man uses in science, in which there is no certitude but only hypothesis, and faith in the theological realm where it actually becomes the faculty for certitude are absolutely key. In much modern theological writing (non-Orthodox) faith is defined only in the first manner – and incertitude has become something of a moment for celebration. As I have noted earlier, such an approach to faith is the ground of ecumenism – for ignorance need have no boundaries.

This is not the ignorance which Orthodoxy teaches – an ignorance that is the transcending of knowledge in the life of prayer and communion with God. In such an exercise, ignorance is not the lack of something, but instead a fullness. It is from this fullness – a fullness that transcends being itself – that God said, “Let there be light.” It was this fullness that was made known to us in the Word become flesh.

Thus we say of the Mother of God in this first week of Great Lent:

Ineffable is the childbearing of a seedless conception, unsullied the pregnancy of a Virgin Mother, for the birth of God renews natures.  So in all generations we magnify thee in orthodox fashion as the Mother and Bride of God.

Irmos of Ode 9 of the Great Canon

The Word becomes flesh, but in an “ineffable” manner. It cannot be spoken nor described. But, by faith, we may know it (else we could not sing).

It is thus with the whole life of the Church – for the life of the Church is none other than the life of the Living God. We are Baptized into Him, made one with Him. We know Him and faith receives this knowledge in certitude. But such certitude is not easily expressed, except to say, “I know Whom I have believed [faithed]” (2 Timothy 1:12).

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.





11 responses to “Vladimir Lossky on Faith”

  1. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    I couldn’t help but try to break this down a bit:

    1) A supposition or working hypothesis is only cleared up by a proof. In much “theology” today embracing this kind of uncertainty is taken for biblical faith.

    2) Mankind is by nature a creature of flesh, yet designed to meet Christ in love. The transforming of this grace divinizes, makes us know Christ as a bride and co-heirs of His kingdom with all the knowledge and gifts that He bestows on His own.

    The first approach –a matter of WHAT may be known– is useful for knowing things of material nature. The later approach –a matter of WHO may be known– is necessary for knowing anything of divine nature. It is theology.

  2. Ben Avatar

    Thank you Father, this is exactly what I needed to read today. I go to an evangelical school and right now am in Theology II. I can get caught up too often in pointing out Orthodoxy to my classmates, when in reality I am not doing it justice because I forget the essence of Orthodoxy, union with God and union with man.

    Thank you for reminding me that the central facet of theology is always relationship with the ineffable God.

    BTW, my fiance and I are being made catechumens next Sunday, the Sunday after the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

  3. Lord Peter Avatar
    Lord Peter

    Thank you for the excellent post. I have forwarded it to a friend, who is a big fan of Buber’s “I and Thou.”

  4. Stephen W Avatar
    Stephen W

    “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the manifestation of realities unseen (Heb. 11:1).

    It seems now that I was once taught to read this as “Faith is the mental belief in…”

    To those who hold this interpretation or change in words, it is difficult to have a conversation on spiritual life, prayer, fasting, or any number of things. I feel now that I was chasing an ideology, belief or blind faith that I could never quite reach, which kept taunting me to give up. Thank God that there is more, much more to discover within our own hearts.

  5. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    As a convert it still makes a deep impression on me that God still shows up. That He is transcendent yet comes to meet us in the sacraments and many other grace-filled ways that are like OT and NT theophanies such as the burning bush, Mt. Sinai / Moses’ face, shekinah in the temple that struck Zechariah dumb, the baptism of Jesus, the transfiguration of Moses and Elijah with Christ.

    In my prior theological training any notion that God still shows up to meet us was diminished, His grace was reduced to a benevolent attitude.

    I no longer think God has quit coming to men; He meets us humans in the mysteries of our liturgical work as He always did, and like Moses face, His glory still conveys divinity to mere flesh. By faith in Christ this is also my hope of salvation, that I may be with Him and not burn up, but rather be conformed to Him.

  6. Dave Avatar

    St. Ignatius once wrote: “Your faith is your upward guide and love is the way that leads up toward God. So you are all companions on the way, God-bearers and shrine-bearers, Christ bearers, bearers of holy things, in every respect adorned with the commandments of Jesus Christ” (Letter to the Ephesians, 9).

  7. Andrew K. D. Smith Avatar

    Many look at Christianity and reject it, thinking we have invented a deity; in rejecting, making deities out of themselves.

    Perhaps the both/and in this dialogue is what Orthodoxy can best offer – that we did not invent God, but we know Him; and He invites us to become like Him.

  8. […] contrary to mine on faith. My criticism is that it avoids dealing with the problem of belief, instead focusing on a […]

  9. Michael BAuman Avatar
    Michael BAuman

    “Lossky can be notoriously hard to read – partly because his thought is very careful and condensed.”

    But also because he does not write in the manner many expect. My son discovered when we were part of a discussion group reading Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church that Lossky was much easier to understand if he read the end of the chapter first then went back to the beginning to find out how Lossky arrived at his conclusions. I had to agree with my son, it did help considerably.

  10. Robert Bearer Avatar
    Robert Bearer

    In the context of our dicusssions about the nature of faith, Benedict XVI has some interesting things to say in Sections 7-10 of his second Encyclical, Spe salvi facti summus.

    Rather than editing out of context, I provide the extract here.


    7. . . . In the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews (v. 1) we find a kind of definition of faith which closely links this virtue with hope. Ever since the Reformation there has been a dispute among exegetes over the central word of this phrase, but today a way towards a common interpretation seems to be opening up once more. For the time being I shall leave this central word untranslated. The sentence therefore reads as follows: “Faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen”. For the Fathers and for the theologians of the Middle Ages, it was clear that the Greek word hypostasis was to be rendered in Latin with the term substantia. The Latin translation of the text produced at the time of the early Church therefore reads: Est autem fides sperandarum substantia rerum, argumentum non apparentium—faith is the “substance” of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen. Saint Thomas Aquinas[4], using the terminology of the philosophical tradition to which he belonged, explains it as follows: faith is a habitus, that is, a stable disposition of the spirit, through which eternal life takes root in us and reason is led to consent to what it does not see. The concept of “substance” is therefore modified in the sense that through faith, in a tentative way, or as we might say “in embryo”—and thus according to the “substance”—there are already present in us the things that are hoped for: the whole, true life. And precisely because the thing itself is already present, this presence of what is to come also creates certainty: this “thing” which must come is not yet visible in the external world (it does not “appear”), but because of the fact that, as an initial and dynamic reality, we carry it within us, a certain perception of it has even now come into existence. To Luther, who was not particularly fond of the Letter to the Hebrews, the concept of “substance”, in the context of his view of faith, meant nothing. For this reason he understood the term hypostasis/substance not in the objective sense (of a reality present within us), but in the subjective sense, as an expression of an interior attitude, and so, naturally, he also had to understand the term argumentum as a disposition of the subject. In the twentieth century this interpretation became prevalent—at least in Germany—in Catholic exegesis too, so that the ecumenical translation into German of the New Testament, approved by the Bishops, reads as follows: Glaube aber ist: Feststehen in dem, was man erhofft, Überzeugtsein von dem, was man nicht sieht (faith is: standing firm in what one hopes, being convinced of what one does not see). This in itself is not incorrect, but it is not the meaning of the text, because the Greek term used (elenchos) does not have the subjective sense of “conviction” but the objective sense of “proof”. Rightly, therefore, recent Prot- estant exegesis has arrived at a different interpretation: “Yet there can be no question but that this classical Protestant understanding is untenable”[5]. Faith is not merely a personal reaching out towards things to come that are still totally absent: it gives us something. It gives us even now something of the reality we are waiting for, and this present reality constitutes for us a “proof” of the things that are still unseen. Faith draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a “not yet”. The fact that this future exists changes the present; the present is touched by the future reality, and thus the things of the future spill over into those of the present and those of the present into those of the future.
    8. This explanation is further strengthened and related to daily life if we consider verse 34 of the tenth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, which is linked by vocabulary and content to this definition of hope-filled faith and prepares the way for it. Here the author speaks to believers who have undergone the experience of persecution and he says to them: “you had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property (hyparchonton—Vg. bonorum), since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession (hyparxin—Vg. substantiam) and an abiding one.” Hyparchonta refers to property, to what in earthly life constitutes the means of support, indeed the basis, the “substance” for life, what we depend upon. This “substance”, life’s normal source of security, has been taken away from Christians in the course of persecution. They have stood firm, though, because they considered this material substance to be of little account. They could abandon it because they had found a better “basis” for their existence—a basis that abides, that no one can take away. We must not overlook the link between these two types of “substance”, between means of support or material basis and the word of faith as the “basis”, the “substance” that endures. Faith gives life a new basis, a new foundation on which we can stand, one which relativizes the habitual foundation, the reliability of material income. A new freedom is created with regard to this habitual foundation of life, which only appears to be capable of providing support, although this is obviously not to deny its normal meaning. This new freedom, the awareness of the new “substance” which we have been given, is revealed not only in martyrdom, in which people resist the overbearing power of ideology and its political organs and, by their death, renew the world. Above all, it is seen in the great acts of renunciation, from the monks of ancient times to Saint Francis of Assisi and those of our contemporaries who enter modern religious Institutes and movements and leave everything for love of Christ, so as to bring to men and women the faith and love of Christ, and to help those who are suffering in body and spirit. In their case, the new “substance” has proved to be a genuine “substance”; from the hope of these people who have been touched by Christ, hope has arisen for others who were living in darkness and without hope. In their case, it has been demonstrated that this new life truly possesses and is “substance” that calls forth life for others. For us who contemplate these figures, their way of acting and living is de facto a “proof” that the things to come, the promise of Christ, are not only a reality that we await, but a real presence: he is truly the “philosopher” and the “shepherd” who shows us what life is and where it is to be found.
    9. In order to understand more deeply this reflection on the two types of substance—hypostasis and hyparchonta—and on the two approaches to life expressed by these terms, we must continue with a brief consideration of two words pertinent to the discussion which can be found in the tenth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. I refer to the words hypomone (10:36) and hypostole (10:39). Hypo- mone is normally translated as “patience”—perseverance, constancy. Knowing how to wait, while patiently enduring trials, is necessary for the believer to be able to “receive what is promised” (10:36). In the religious context of ancient Judaism, this word was used expressly for the expectation of God which was characteristic of Israel, for their persevering faithfulness to God on the basis of the certainty of the Covenant in a world which contradicts God. Thus the word indicates a lived hope, a life based on the certainty of hope. In the New Testament this expectation of God, this standing with God, takes on a new significance: in Christ, God has revealed himself. He has already communicated to us the “substance” of things to come, and thus the expectation of God acquires a new certainty.
    It is the expectation of things to come from the perspective of a present that is already given. It is a looking-forward in Christ’s presence, with Christ who is present, to the perfecting of his Body, to his definitive coming. The word hypostole, on the other hand, means shrinking back through lack of courage to speak openly and frankly a truth that may be dangerous. Hiding through a spirit of fear leads to “destruction” (Heb 10:39). “God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control”—that, by contrast, is the beautiful way in which the Second Letter to Timothy (1:7) describes the fundamental attitude of the Christian.
    10. We have spoken thus far of faith and hope in the New Testament and in early Christianity; yet it has always been clear that we are referring not only to the past: the entire reflection concerns living and dying in general, and therefore it also concerns us here and now. So now we must ask explicitly: is the Christian faith also for us today a life-changing and life-sustaining hope?
    Is it “performative” for us—is it a message which shapes our life in a new way, or is it just “information” which, in the meantime, we have set aside and which now seems to us to have been superseded by more recent information? In the search for an answer, I would like to begin with the classical form of the dialogue with which the rite of Baptism expressed the reception of an infant into the community of believers and the infant’s rebirth in Christ. First of all the priest asked what name the parents had chosen for the child, and then he continued with the question: “What do you ask of the Church?” Answer: “Faith”. “And what does faith give you?” “Eternal life”. According to this dialogue, the parents were seeking access to the faith for their child, communion with believers, because they saw in faith the key to “eternal life”. Today as in the past, this is what being baptized, becoming Christians, is all about: it is not just an act of socialization within the community, not simply a welcome into the Church. The parents expect more for the one to be baptized: they expect that faith, which includes the corporeal nature of the Church and her sacraments, will give life to their child—eternal life. Faith is the substance of hope.

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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