True Knowledge of God – Living the Tradition

Nikolai_Bruni-Candle_Bearer_in_a_Convent_1891Tradition (the subject of my last post) is understood within the Orthodox faith in a manner that is quite different than the word’s use in the vocabulary of many other Christians. Tradition is the continuous Life of God in the Church. There are many things that give expression to this life – but Tradition itself is not the expression but the content that gives rise to the expression. The Christian faith is not words about God but true participation in the very Life of God. He is the True Vine and our life is found only by dwelling in Him.

The Elder Sophrony made a strong distinction between the knowledge we gain by rational speculation and the knowledge of God that comes as a gift of grace. He used the term “dogmatic consciousness” to express the knowledge of God as found in the lives of the saints and great ascetics. His teachings on the “dogmatic consciousness” are not a denial of the role played by the classical dogmatic teachings of the Church, but a recognition of the utter necessity of our existential encounter with God that ineffably confirm the teaching of the Church. As a side note, it is interesting that Elder Sophrony thought that the time between the knowledge gained in such an encounter and its verbal expression generally extended for more than fifteen years . It takes time to properly assimilate such knowledge and yet more time to find words.

The dogmatic consciousness I have here in mind is the fruit of spiritual experience, independent of the logical brain’s activity. The writings in which the Saints reported their experience were not cast in the form of scholastic dissertations. They were revelations of the soul. Discourse on God and on life in God comes about simply, without cogitation, born spontaneously in the soul.

Dogmatic consciousness where asceticism is concerned is not a rational analysis of an inward experience – it is not ‘psychoanalysis’. Ascetics avoid this rational speculation because it only weakens the intensity of their contemplation of the Light but, indeed, interrupts it, with the result that the soul sinks into darkness, left as she is with a merely abstract rational knowledge devoid of all vitality.

What is the use of reasoning about the nature of grace if one does not experience its action in oneself? What is the use of declaiming about the light of Tabor if one does not dwell in it existentially? Is there any sense in splitting theological hairs over the nature of the Trinity if a man has not within himself the holy strength of the Father, the gentle love of the Son, the uncreated light of the Holy Ghost?

Dogmatic knowledge, understood as spiritual knowledge, is a gift of God, like all forms of real life in God, granted by God, and only possible through His coming. This knowledge has by no means always been expressed in speech or in writing. The soul does not aspire to expound her experience in rational concepts when God’s grace descends on her. She needs no logical interpretations then, because she knows with a knowledge that cannot be demonstrated but which equally requires no proof that she lives through the true God….

…God is made known by faith and living communion, whereas human speech with all its relativity and fluidity opens the way to endless misunderstandings and objections. (From St. Silouan the Athonite).

This short passage itself expresses the faith of the Orthodox Church as expressed in its life and councils. Though the study of dogma or doctrine is certainly part of every priest’s education and, in some form, part of every catechumen’s training, it is never enough by itself. This is the deeper and truer expression of the ancient formula, lex orandi lex credendi (“the law of praying is the law of believing”). For many in our modern context, this ancient formula has been interpreted to mean that the texts of the Church’s liturgical worship should be the basis for the Church’s dogmatic expressions. In many ways this is true. The liturgical language of the Church gives a very full expression to the Church’s faith. But in another sense, implied by Father Sophrony, we may say that the actual participation in the liturgical life of the Church, our existential encounter with God in the worshipping context, is the proper meaning of the ancient formula. For without the knowledge that is known “by faith and living communion,” words fall flat and fail to say the little that can be said.

The dogmatic expressions of the Church, though providing a grammar for worship, are not the proper object of worship itself. They provide a grammar but direct us to the worship of the True and Living God, knowledge of Whom is eternal life.

As one contemporary American Orthodox theologian has said recently, “After all, it’s really all about God.” Indeed.

What is the use of reasoning about the nature of grace if one does not experience its action in oneself? What is the use of declaiming about the light of Tabor if one does not dwell in it existentially? Is there any sense in splitting theological hairs over the nature of the Trinity if a man has not within himself the holy strength of the Father, the gentle love of the Son, the uncreated light of the Holy Ghost?

This is the content of Tradition. Without this content, the reading of Scripture is meaningless – for the Scriptures are a word spoken from a world that is itself life with God.

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.





22 responses to “True Knowledge of God – Living the Tradition”

  1. Yudikris Avatar

    Thanks Father Stephen, I love the last quote, that is very helpful and powerful.

  2. asiaticus Avatar

    so true, so true…Tis all about God.

  3. asiaticus Avatar

    Father, have you noticed that in T.S.Eliot’s ” Choruses from “The Rocks”” there is the same concern for recovering and preserving tradition? If only the Anglicans listened to him.

  4. Stephen Avatar

    The problem it seems is that there are those outside of the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, who would fully agree with all of this, but would choose to see-and define- tradition as meaning something larger more universal than a local church or more specifically the Orthodox Church. What I generally hear is that God is very much present with them and guides them more as individuals who are all part of the larger (universal) body of Christ. There seems to be no other way to think and remain outside of the “Tradition” as it was handed down. So then a superficial agreement is established as to where the grace of God is to be found. I usually have to stop there since I can not say who does and does not know God. Of course one can only say where he “is” but all Christians would make this claim or they wouldn’t call themselves a Christian.

    On another note would you say that dogma is the living expression of the Church, born out of the experience and communion with God which has been tested and found to be true?

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There are those who proclaim that there is no salvation outside of the Orthodox Church while others maintain a more dispersed understanding.

    Certainly, Jesus Christ comes to people who are not Orthodox to call them to himself.

    Just as certainly, the depth and content of the experience available in the Holy Orthodox Church is beyond anything else available elsewhere.

    So, is salvation possible outside the Church and her sacraments or is the reductionist formula of simple belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior sufficient to get one in the door but not “higher up and further in”?

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have been traveling today, thus I have not offered a reply. Several of the comments anticipate some of my own thoughts. There are several points that seem worth noting:

    1. There is no such thing as the “New Testament” Church. This is a fiction – an imaginary description of the Church that grows out of certain forms of Protestant thought. It has a particular history in 19th century America, where a number of individuals and groups set out to recreate, restore or otherwise establish the “New Testament Church.” The Mormons are an example. Joseph Smith claimed to have refounded the New Testament Church with visitations to him of John the Baptist, the Apostles, Jesus, and no less than God the Father and the Holy Spirit (complete with feathers). Other groups attempted the same thing. In Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Tennessee the so-called Restoration Movement had its beginnings as well. With them an extreme form of the Protestant Sola Scriptura (Scripture Only) was used to establish a new, restored “New Testament Church.”

    But there is no such thing. The Church existed before the New Testament was written – thus to name it by something that was created through it would be absurd. The Scripture calls the Church many things: the Body of Christ, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, the Fullness of Him that Filleth All and All.

    The adjectives this Church came to use in subsequent centuries are noted in the Nicene Creed: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. During the centuries in which this same Church, founded by Christ, suffered to preserve the faith that had once and for all been delivered to it, it came to use yet another adjective to differentiate it from those who held false beliefs. Believers came to refer to the Church as the Orthodox Church, an adjective still in general use.

    It was this very Church that was first called “Christian” in the city of Antioch, whose Patriarch continues to this day, holding the same faith as Peter and Paul and others who have graced that God-protected Church. His line of succession can be recited without fear of contradiction to this day.

    2. The Scriptures are a great gift to the Church (though in the pages of the NT the word “Scriptures” generally only refers to the OT, the only “Scriptures” known to the Church of the first century. St. Justin Martyr, writing in the 2nd century, refers to the gospels as the “memoirs of the Apostles.” But it was the Church, established by Christ, that came to accept the books that now comprise the “New Testament” as authoritative and declared them as the authoritative canon in the 4th century. They were certainly used and quoted authoritatively before that on account of their Apostolic origin. However, Christ did not command the Apostles to write books. They did write, and as with their other actions (teachings, etc.) they were treated as authoritative.

    But they were Apostles (those who are sent). They obeyed Christ’s command to “go forth into the world and make disciples, teaching them to observe whatsoever things I have commanded you, Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Thus they traveled and established communities of believers, appointing leaders within those communities (Bishops, presbyters, deacons, etc.). The bishops were charged with shepherding the young communities and held the authority of the Apostles in those communities. Only those communities whose bishops were in communion (holding the same faith and practice) with other communities of apostolic origin were considered faithful Christian communities. These communities did not disappear nor did they alter the faith (or if the faith was altered, they were expelled from the communion of the one Church). They continue to this day, without disruption. What was delivered to them they kept.

    It is incorrect to refer to the “New Testament Church.” It would be more accurate to say, “The Church’s New Testament.”

    3. Some within the Protestant family have made of the bible a “Christian Koran,” reducing Christianity to a “people of the book.” They define Christianity and the Church by its obedience to Scripture and set themselves as the only authoritative interpreters. They have no warrant for such a claim – no appointment by the Apostles to such an office. They are an American fiction – born of the 19th century hubris of this land which considered itself the birthplace of all good things. Not content with unjust claims to an entire continent – its people sought to claim for themselves the title of “New Testament Church”.

    4. The Apostles were obedient to Christ. They preached, taught and baptized. They appointed leaders (including an additional Apostle for the Twelve) according to the authority given them. They met in Council (recorded in the book of Acts) and made authoritative decisions for the Church. Their successors, the bishops, would also meet in council when necessary, and make authoritative decisions for the life of the Church and for its continued faithfulness. Those who would ask “where is the warrant in Scripture for such authority” need look no further than Titus 2:15 “Speak these things, exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no one despise you.” Titus was a Bishop, appointed by St. Paul. Those who taught and exercised authority neither added to nor subtracted from the faith that had been delivered to them.

    5. The content of that faith is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. The teachings concerning that salvation are important and authoritative – but the teachings serve a greater purpose: to communicate Christ Himself, not information about Christ. We are not saved by information but by the indwelling of Christ with whom we have been made one in Holy Baptism, by whom we have been anointed with the Holy Spirit in Chrismation, through whom the continued authority He established is confirmed in ordination, etc. But all things are for the excellency of knowing Christ, who alone is our salvation.

    There were Christians who lived during the first century (part of what others falsely call the “New Testament Church”) who fell away and were lost. St. Paul himself mentions two of these: Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:20). The creation of a “New Testament” Church offers no guarantees of salvation. Christ alone is our salvation – and He was not rediscovered in 19th century America.

    6. There is a Church that has kept the faith. It authoritatively declared the content of the canon of Scripture for it alone knew the word of the Apostles. Its faithful labored endlessly, and copied manuscripts of the Scripture by hand (as they did everything else we currently have from the ancient Western world). Those who today arrogantly or ignorantly claim to have restored the New Testament Church do so with a book for which they did not die, did not labor, did not produce, with whose keeping they were not entrusted. They have not given the world the millions of martyrs of the Orthodox Church and yet they would steal for themselves the title of “Church.”

    The simple reading of history in these matters should lead to conclusions that show such claims to be false. I believe that many hunger for a “New Testament Church” for salutary reasons, but are greatly mistaken about the nature of Christian history and the work of God for our salvation. They have a distorted understanding of what the Bible itself is, having created a “holy book” for themselves that is best compared to the Muslim view of the Koran. They may be called “Bible Christians” but they are not “Church Christians” for they cannot create for themselves something that is the creation of God alone.

    These seem to me to be some points worth noting.

  7. Rob Holter Avatar
    Rob Holter

    Stop looking from outside in!!!!!

    Go in to Orthodoxy and discover what has been known all along – God is Love not wrath, but we have to drop our preconceptions and self denial that we can have truth from without!

    If he is the God of truth and Love would he not remain with (as he said he would) the Church, so that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it?

    The problem is accepting this LOVE in its fullest form… Which means to deny self and trust!

  8. GVM Avatar

    Fr, Bless!

    Thank you for your wonderful posts. They are extremely helpful, especially for Catechumens like myself.


  9. Robert Mahoney Avatar
    Robert Mahoney


    God is a God of love, God is love, but He is also a God of wrath. Finding the middle is hard because some dismiss the love and are just left with wrath and justice. But others dismiss the wrath and justice and are only left with love and mercy. Neither is a true picture.

    I myself am struggling with this very issue, I know I cannot go to either extreme, but I also don’t like being in the middle. I am very bitter at God and am just a conflict of thoughts, spirit wrestling with the flesh, at times I love Him and at other times I truly detest Him.

    Just want to worn of against make an absolute statement that God is a God of love and not wrath.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Rob (Mahoney),

    But His wrath is very likely not what you imagine. In the Fathers of the Orthodox Church, His wrath is His love, but perceived in the distorted perception of the hard heart. It is not denied but, I think, it is more completely understood.

    The Scriptures do not say that God is a “God of love” but rather “God is love.” This indeed seems to be an absolute statement. In the life of Christ, which defines God for us, this statement is upheld (despite the scourging in the temple and the hard words to the Pharisees). His love in absolute form are finalized in His forgiving word on the Cross. But His hanging on the cross was torturous for many who saw who, who “wagged their heads and taunted Him saying,’If you are the Son of God come down.’” Christ was not torturing them with wrath – but His unrelenting love hanging on the cross was a torture for them. This is the wrath of God. Or as St. John said in His gospel: “This is condemnation: that Light has come into the world and men preferred darkness.”

    May you know God’s love and may the conflict of thoughts, etc., come to peace in God’s good time. Wrestling with these things is very important, and I have great regard for the struggle. God keep you!

  11. Robert Mahoney Avatar
    Robert Mahoney

    Fr. Stephen,

    I understand, I know the teaching regarding St. Issac the Syrian and God’s love being the whips.

    While God’s love is wrath, it also has some pretty unpleasant manifestations in this life. I think of the infants who were dashed against the stones Ps 137:9, the man who stretched out his hand to steady the ark and was cut down etc. My heart may be hard, and I don’t see the above examples as wonderful manifestations of God’s love for humanity.

    Like I wrote earlier, I am trying to walk between both ideas.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar


    I would not take the dashing of infants, cancer, earthquakes, etc., as the wrath of God. I do not mean to imply that at all. There is a very different account for evil and for so-called “natural evil” than the wrath of God.

    Have you looked at David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea? He has a good treatment of Orthodox understanding of natural disaster and the like. The evil in our hearts, and its manifestation, much less the evil manifest in the demons has nothing to do with God’s wrath.

    That God will redeem even our evil deeds (“All things work together for good”) is indeed a manifestation of His love and mercy, but does not make Him the author of evil nor does it make such things a manifestation of His love. Christ descent into Hell is a manifestation of God’s love, but the darkness of Hell is of our own making – not God’s wrath. Else Christ would be trampling down God by God. Not at all the gospel, I would think.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    Note to Vilesinner,

    Indeed, shift your eyes away from the self and toward Christ. If you are Orthodox, go to confession (quickly). I have deleted your post for I thought it came too close to confession – which you should not place in such a public place. Guard the secret place of the heart and let Christ reign there, despite your sins. If you are not Orthodox, I’d still go see a priest and open your heart. May God console you.

  14. Ann Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for these posts on hte religion of the heart. I have been thinking about this for some time as I reflect on our modern political discourse, but have provided an eloquent expression to these things. It seems to me that too often, both in our political discourse, and in hte way we speak of people who have committed crimes, that we too often portray the battle between good and evil as one that takes place outside of ourselves – the good people vs. the evil people. But in reality, this is the battle that takes place within our own hearts. Consequently, it behoves us to speak of others with the knowledge that we, too, have within us the capacity for great evil. I think we often find virtue as a mean between two vices (via Gregory of Nyssa) and it is a balance between compassion and acountability, of which neither is truely a vice, that we can find the truth about humanity. It is we who are the authors of evil, and also the recipients of God’s grace. May we continue to find the courage to live this truth!

  15. anonymousgodblogger Avatar

    Rob Mahoney,

    I have spent decades of my life angry about the infants dashed against the rocks, the death after the steadying of the Ark, etc., so I do feel for you, believe me.

    Re. the infants/rocks–I learned via my priest that the church fathers (and here’s *my* thorny issue–why does no one speak of the church mothers?!) interpreted that and many other things allegorically.

    I came across a significant passage about this by St. Gregory of Nyssa, which I’ve pasted at the bottom of this posting–you can jump right to there, if you’d like.

    Now, I think that the psalmists were truly people of their time (and it was a time that had its own characteristic barbaric qualities, as does our time, though different things seem “normal” and “barbaric” to us, so it’s hard to recognize them, just as it’s easy to recognize those of other times), so my hunch is that they really *did* want to dash those infants against the boulders (after all, God didn’t dictate Scripture directly, bypassing our humanity and meandering growth process)–but I think that Gregory’s reading of the passage represents its true internal meaning.

    It is a gruesome image, to be sure, and it’s not easy to deal with, but the above quote helps me.

    I researched the ark guy issue too, but I can’t remember what I came up with.

    Here’s my main point–we could research to the last molecule every one of those troubling Bible issues, and we’d still have other things about which to be angry with God. If not the Bible, then various aspects of history, and if not history, than our lives and the world around us ( which are of course surely parts of current history!).

    I bet you have already discovered this–it’s endless and self-proliferating! And the same goes with issues about the Orthodox Church–some of it feels like home and some of it feels like the Bermuda Triangle.

    It is easy to be–on a low, medium, or high level–continually tormented by a spirit of offense against our God.

    But the thing is, as the song says, time keeps “slippin’ away”–we have only this short span of time in which to surrender these things to God (while still acknowledging them) and give our tired hearts some breathing room to relate trustfully with God anyway.

    It is honest and generally worthy to research and deal with these things, but I have pretty much decided to devote only a small (like, significantly less than 10 percent) of my life energies to pursuing them–and ALSO, more importantly, I’ve decided (when possible) to cultivate a quiet heart and ask God to teach me about them in His time–and it’s amazing what references and explanations just show up unexpectedly when I do that, even–especially–when I’m not even actually actively looking for them.

    One thing that helps me with this is just looking around–everyone else around me–the folks who are more joyful and faithful than me–have pretty much the EXACT SAME DATA as I do–some of which seems unanswerable in this life–and yet they’re knowing God anyway rather than getting stuck on stuff. It is my personality to get stuck (painfully) on stuff–so it’s more about me than it is the “stuff” itself, at least to some extent.

    God is really strange. We are really strange. There isn’t anything, no matter how ordinary, that’s not mysterious and unbearable and (in an ultimate sense, i.e., when God gets done transforming it) glorious and gift-ful once you look at it deeply.

    I suspect that if I *could* be not a Christian (and recently, not an Orthodox Christian as well), and instead, more like a Unitarian or Quaker (great folks, truly!) or like Thomas Jefferson with his scissors-to-Bible approach, I would have already done so, so I might as well sit loose to the disturbances of living with a very odd faith and disturbing biblical tradition, and enjoy the ride and God’s deep mercies and affection, and contextualize my anger and frustration within that context, rather than vice versa, since time is short, and it’s all relational anyway.

    ALSO, in my life, I’ve sinned really seriously INTENTIONALLY and God has done nothing but lead me to mercy and healing, so in the light of that, I can trust Him to take care of the accidental things. ALSO *so what* if I personally end up doing something like placing my hand on the Ark or whatever the contemporary correlative might be? So what if I get destroyed? I know that sounds crazy, but it keeps me in motion. I’ve learned to recognize the conceptual potholes that keep me from being in motion, and to sometimes step around them, and to trust my true heart which mostly just wants to know and serve God anyway and wishes I would let some things just be weird mysteries.

    I hope this helps some. I sense that I’m writing it to some of my previous selves as well as to you. God bless you. Be gentle with yourself, since mental brute force doesn’t open true doors,


    From St. Gregory:

    “…when each of the saints prays for the destruction of whatever is hostile and contrary to human nature, they give the impression to the less educated that they are embittered and angry with human beings.

    When the Psalmist says, “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more” (Ps. 104:35), he prays that sin and wickedness may be abolished. It is not that a human being is an enemy of other human beings, but that the evil movement of free will has set as enemy that wickedness which is joined to human nature. He prays for the abolishment of evil, whereas a human being is not of himself or
    herself evil. For how could the image of the good ever be evil? Accordingly, if he prays for shame and dishonor to befall enemies, he exposes for you the battle array of foes sent by the invisible enemy who
    are opposed to and fight human life. Paul tells more clearly about these adversaries by saying that “our struggle is against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this world, against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). David perceived the demonic plots which induce human beings to sin through evil provocations, angry outbursts, and inflamed desires which are the basis for envy, hate, pride and other similar wickedness. When David the great prophet prays against enemies, it is these cunning passions that he sees surrounding each soul and he asks that they may be put to shame. The shaming of these enemies is the same as being saved. It is natural for a defeated person to be shamed by his fall, just as it is natural for the victor to delight in his victory. That this interpretation is true is shown by the form of David’s prayer. For he says, “Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my soul” (Ps 35 (34):4). David does not pray against those who plot his financial loss, or those who dispute land boundaries with him, or those who threaten him with some bodily harm, but rather against those who plot against his soul. But what is plotting against the soul, if not alienation from God? The human soul is alienated from God in no other way than by lapsing into the state of evil passions. Since God is always free from evil impulses, a person ever given to evil passions is cut off from intimacy with God. In order that he may not suffer this, David prays against the antagonists. This means nothing other than praying for victory over his enemies, and the enemies are the evil passions. So, also, Jeremiah, who perceives the king to be mad with the worship of idols and leading his subjects astray. Possessed by pious zeal, Jeremiah does not seek to satisfy some evil passion of his own, but rather offers his supplication for the common good of all people. He attacks those who have committed impiety expecting that the whole human race might come to its senses (Jer 10). The same is the case with the Prophet Hosea. Seeing at that time the rampant spread of wickedness among the Israelites, h justly condemns it to sterility and desires that the bitter breasts of sin be dried up. His purpose is that people never give birth to evil, nor feed it. It is for this reason that the Prophet says, “Lord, give them a sterile womb and dry breasts” (Hos 9:14). Whatever other similar words may be found among the saints expressing the marks and accusations of anger, they serve by all means this purpose, namely, to banish evil, not to destroy humanity. “God did not make death” (Wis 1:13). Do you hear the pronouncement? How then could one, intending the death of his own enemies, so entreat God who is foreign to death’s operations? God does not delight in the destruction of the living. A person who prays in this manner is babbling. Seeking to stir up God’s love against one’s own enemies, he in fact blasphemes by enjoining God to delight in human misfortunes.”

  16. fatherstephen Avatar


    A good word – and from the heart. Thanks.

  17. Novaseeker Avatar

    In thinking about the wrath of God, I am also reminded of Paul’s admonition that, prior to receiving the Lord, one must exercise discernment, lest one eat and drink condemnation onto oneself. The contents of the chalice are the same, either way — it is the body and blood of Christ, and is constantly so. But whether you personally experience that eating and drinking as condemnation (by doing so unworthily) rather than communion and remission of sins (by doing so worthily) is dependent on *you*, and not on God — that same body and blood can be either thing, depending, again, on *you*. Similarly, God is constantly love — but whether you experience that love as communion or condemnation is dependent on you, and rather not on God vacillating between being love and being wrath.

  18. […] ‘rational’ interpretation of Scripture and what the Elder Sophrony once dubbed ‘dogmatic consciousness.’ The Fathers of the Church did not offer us theology as their ‘best guess’ or as […]

  19. […] the s0-called ‘rational’ interpretation of Scripture and what the Elder Sophrony once dubbed ‘dogmatic consciousness.’ The Fathers of the Church did not offer us theology as their ‘best guess’ or as the fruit […]

  20. Micah Avatar

    Another first rate post Father, thank you.

  21. dinoship Avatar


    ” they’re knowing God anyway rather than getting stuck on stuff”

    Very wise indeed!

  22. dinoship Avatar

    Great posts! I just stumbled across this…

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