To Know What You Cannot Know

You cannot know God – but you have to know Him to know that.
– Fr. Thomas Hopko


This small quote from Fr. Thomas has stayed with me since I first heard it. It says so much by saying so little.

I find two groups of people increasingly common in my conversations – those who profess to not know God (agnostics) – and those who struggle greatly with what they have been told about the Christian God. The largest group within my conversations are those who feel very secure in their knowledge of God but who believe a lot of strange things that they cannot possibly know. I feel a calling to help people know a lot less so they can know anything at all.

Orthodox theology is often described as “mystical.” The term does not mean “weird” or “esoteric.” Instead it refers to a union of thought and experience and a grounding in an approach to knowledge rooted in not-knowing. This form of theology is also described as “apophatic,” that “which cannot be spoken.”

True theology is inherently mystical (in this sense) because it is concerned with the God-Who-Cannot-Be-Known. God is above, beyond, outside the realm of human knowing. He is not an object among objects so that He may be studied. Some of the Church Fathers referred to God as having hyperousia – an existence beyond existence. St. Gregory the Theologian famously said, “Inasmuch as God exists, we do not exist. Inasmuch as we exist, God does not exist.”

If such statements sound confusing or even like nonsense – they are supposed to. For we are speaking about God, who cannot be known. What can language do?

But theology does exist, even if it is mystical and apophatic. There is such a thing as knowledge of God, though He is beyond knowing. Such knowledge is not gained by thinking (or not primarily by thinking). Understanding how such knowledge is gained is key to an authentic spiritual life.

The classical formula of purification, illumination and deification is something of a shorthand for this authentic life, but too easily degenerates into mere formula. Purification refers both to the realization that we do not know (thus purifying us from delusions) and to the ascetical disciplines of fasting, prayer, repentance, almsgiving, vigils, etc. (battling with the disordered passions – thoughts and emotions). Illumination comes both as pure gift and as the fruit of the spiritual life and its disciplines.

In the realm of formal theology, we are often deluded by our ability to learn, discuss, dissect and compare intellectual systems. The academic world describes this as “theology,” but it qualifies as such only because of its topic. True theology is the life in pursuit of true knowledge of God.

And this brings us back to where we started – true knowledge of what we cannot know. This is the great witness of the Christian faith – that the God who cannot be known – makes Himself known in and through the God/Man, Jesus Christ. But even here, it is possible to substitute knowledge of a purely intellectual nature for true knowledge.

I recently thought of an example. Those who have learned a foreign language describe the process of learning. It involves memorization, practice, failure, embarrassment, etc. At some point, if someone becomes truly proficient, the process of thinking about the foreign language ceases, and simply speaking begins. So long as we are translating in our heads, we do not yet know the new language. But then if we ask someone who has become fluent in a foreign language how they know the new language, it would escape definition. But they certainly know it. The same question could be asked of our native languages: how do we know them?

I am not suggesting that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of a language are the same thing – but one is more like the other than either is like thinking. Indeed, thinking is the evidence of not knowing.

The language of belief, rooted to a large degree in the debates of the last five or six centuries in the West, becomes extremely misleading in all of this. When someone tells me they do not believe in God, I understand what they mean, but they have no idea what I mean when I say that I do believe in God. And they are certainly taken aback if I say that I know God. The same is true (to a degree) of many Christians who say they believe in God. Often they are referring to the sort of belief that St. James mocks in his epistle: “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” (2:19). And if the discussion moves to questions of debating various theological points – it is quite likely that true belief and knowledge will never be found.

Orthodoxy has both dogma and canons. These are not set forth as debating points but as markers within the life of faith, set by those who know the path. They guide us towards true knowledge – though they are not the knowledge themselves. Christ Himself is the content of faith and the true content of dogma and canon. The life of prayer and worship is communion with the true and living God, though we may often feel like strangers overhearing a conversation between others. Like the acquisition of a new language, worship slowly becomes something about which we need not think, but something in which we’ve become fluent. So it is with the knowledge of God.

But you have to know Him to know that.

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.





72 responses to “To Know What You Cannot Know”

  1. […] blog, “Glory to God for All Things.” Both of these are taken from the post, “To Know What You Cannot Know.” The first is Freeman quoting Fr. Thomas Hopko: You cannot know God — but you have to […]

  2. guy Avatar

    i was just having a similar discussion with a priest yesterday morning. i’m a new-comer to Orthodoxy, and i’m having trouble with this. Surely this sort of emphasis on knowledge-by-acquaintance doesn’t entail that it’s wrong to want to study and learn the justifications for the various claims made in Orthodox doctrine or dogma, does it? Otherwise, how would i be able to tell truth from error? Or how would i even know that i’ve come to the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church? This need to focus on second-person-knowledge-of-God can’t rule out entirely the need for at least some third-person knowledge, can it?

  3. Michael Patrick Avatar
    Michael Patrick

    “thinking is the evidence of not knowing”
    — a true and penetrating diagnostic !

    “prayer and worship is communion with the true and living God”
    — the right way to respond to Fr. Hopko’s proverb !

    Thank you!

  4. […] Fr Stephen Freeman writes: […]

  5. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Fascinating ideas here. Can I phrase it like this?

    Before I get married, I know my wife. I can tell you lots of facts about her history, preferences, strengths and weaknesses, and even possibly predict what she would do in certain situations.

    10 years down the road, I KNOW my wife. Much of that knowledge about her history and other facts may still be in my memory but it does not sit at the forefront anymore. I have long since put away my need to know her (small “k”) – sometimes to my peril and her chagrin, but now I’m mainly practicing the daily act of KNOWing her.

    I could not begin to tell you how I KNOW her, just that I do. I should not cease to know her, but it is now secondary to our relationship. Or perhaps it is more of a by-product of our KNOWing than it is an intentional work.

    Does this work?

    The language example is wonderful too. I took 3 years of Spanish and finally began thinking it in conversation rather than doing the translation in my head on the fly.

  6. […]   ☆ ☆ ☆5) To know what you cannot know Silouan on Wednesday, Apr 18th 11:04 amKeywords: Blog, dogma, epistemology, personal experience, wisdomFr Stephen Freeman writes: […]

  7. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    There are many nuggets of sweet and godly wisdom in this post, Father. How often I find myself reading rather than praying; scrutinizing God when I should be adoring Him!

    That said, I have a few amiable criticisms.

    Christianity is peculiar for its relentless insistence on theological minutiae. This tendency is neither exclusive to modernity nor the west. It goes back to the very beginning. In fact, the ancient eastern Christians were considerably more dogmatic than anyone in the modern west. Just look at the ferocity of the dogmatic battles; the countless polemical tomes; the dense and heady philosophical constructs; the skillful appropriation of Hellenistic concepts.

    Men lost life and limb over mere vowels and syllables. One little word — filioque — broke the Great Church in two. Is Mary properly called God-bearer or Christ-bearer—this debate consumed entire nations.

    You say that such dogmas are simply guideposts? This is not fair to the reality of history or the nature of the faith. No, sacred dogmas have real meaning. They are products of intense labor, labor both spiritual and intellectual.

    Whether or not Christ is a creature matters. Whether or not the eucharist is real flesh and real blood matters. Whether or not God is three persons in one substance matters. Whether or not one must obey his bishop matters. These dogmas matter because they define who we are. And these dogmas are products of inspired prayer, of course, but also discussion, debate, and careful study of books holy and profane.

    God grants man the precious gift of rational intellection. The intellect allows us to accept or deny certain propositions. Christian identity is historically defined by one’s assent to certain propositions. Is this not the entire reason we repeat the Creed every liturgy?

    Actions are necessary, yes, but good works do not a Christian make. A pious and kindly ascetic is not a Christian unless he accepts Christ, the Trinity, the Church, and so on. If this were not the case, Gandhi would be a Christian.

    “And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

    If you go to Mass every day of your life; if you love and give alms; if you bow before innumerable crosses and icons; if you do all this but know not Christ, you are no Christian, and who knows what your fate is. Ergo, one’s Christianity is first and foremost intellectual. It is volitional: a conscience decision to repent and live for the Lord (followed, naturally, by doing just that).

    Orthopraxy without orthodoxy is utterly useless. It misses the point entirely. This is the central error of the “emergent church,” the postmodern Christians who have icons of Gandhi (not to keep picking on the poor bloke) and believe we’re all just “climbing different sides of the same mountain.”

    I realize I am treading on dangerous ground: I do not mean to divide orthodoxy from orthopraxis, as do the emergents. Nor do I mean to suggest that our actions are unimportant. On the contrary, they are extremely important, as we learn from Matthew 25.

    But how can we be expected to act in the fashion of Christ unless we first know Him to be Lord and Savior, the Logos Incarnate? Again, action is subject to and flows from intellectual assent.

    You write, “True theology is the life in pursuit of true knowledge of God.” I am forced to wonder how many Hindus spend their lives in pursuit of “true knowledge of God.” Yet what will they find? They are ignorant of Christ, the Trinity, the Church. How can they find that which they do not know? God help them.

    It is indeed dangerous to divorce, for lack of better words, piety and knowledge. But it is equally dangerous to confuse them.
    Can we “know” God? Surely, we cannot know Him exhaustively, completely, fully. But He has revealed Himself, and I am forced to believe, by virtue of His omnipotence and charity, that He has done so with sufficient clarity, that man might know Him as He truly is.

    Well, I’ll shut my trap now. Already said more than I planned to. God bless and keep you all.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Well phrased. I’ve often thought of the example of husband’s and wives. The language example is new.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    Perhaps the word “guideposts” led you astray 🙂 Guideposts are serious things. To ignore them is to leave the path (of salvation). Thus they can even be worth arguing over. A single iota can be a real problem. Of course, our histories are most full of the dogmatic controversies and we forget that even St. Athanasius had normal days (even in his 6 exiles). Those days we have to live actually following the path and not simply arguing over or figuring out the guideposts.

    But you do misunderstand some essential things that I am saying. Knowing is so much more than information (God could have simply sent us a book – He did not – we are not Muslims). The mode of knowing is deeply important. Intellection, though important, is not salvific. It is not intellection that Christ refers to when He says, “This is eternal life – that they might know Thee, the only true God.” Such knowledge is never exhaustive, we do not know God in His essence. But it is knowledge by participation – true participation in His life – according to the Fathers of the East. BTW, Hindus do well to pursue “true knowledge of God” if the pursuit is honest.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    You are correct. There certainly must be study, understanding of justifications for various claims, etc. It is indeed necessary. Within that process, however, there are moments of the other knowledge that is well not to neglect. But you are absolutely right.

  11. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Philip Jude,

    Thank goodness. You’ve been quiet for so long I thought you’d taken ill! (grin)

    I don’t have the answer to all your concerns, but I suspect you’re coming at it from heart and yet good old intellect and rationale is getting in your way. Please allow me to go back to the example of marriage:

    Before I married my wife, I checked her out: is she a good cook? What does she think about children, current moral issues (not to mention her faith) and so on? How does she conduct herself in public, in private? You get the picture.

    In the context of our faith, these are the dogmas. This is where you’re asked if you know (small k) Jesus Christ and the basics of salvation. Yes they are very important, but they are the law. The law provides boundaries but the Spirit gives life.

    If after we were married, I continued to examine her and call into question her stance on each issue – with the inference that differing views might cause me to leave her, I myself would be the divisive one. While it’s quite possible that serious issues might come up (infidelity, heresy, lawlessness, etc), I don’t live my life with her looking for these things. If it’s discovered, I should appropriately be surprised and taken unawares, having concentrated my efforts on KNOWing her, not knowing her with a critical eye.

    You are quite right about the filioque and the God/Christ-bearer struggles – and yet you are also wrong. Any good student of history (which I’m sure you are) realizes that it was over much more than just words, these often serving as a front for the main players in order that they hide things like fear, jealousy, pride and greed.

    If I divorced my wife over a couple of actual words, I would be looked at as the fool, the hypocrite, the man who was just looking for an easy way out. Dogma and words are very important, but they by themselves do not a good relationship make; true KNOWledge is needed to go with it.

    my thoughts, drewster

  12. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    Actually, I am sick. My wife passed her damnable bronchitis (sp?) onto me. But I’ve been quite well other than that. I severely limited my media use for the end of Lent and the beginning of the Paschal season. Much needed spiritual rest. Reading and arguing about theology on the internet can be quite bad for the soul, as I’m sure you know. I’m pretty busy right now, so I’ll have to respond later, but thanks for answering so promptly. God bless.

  13. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Sorry to hear that, PJ.

    “Reading and arguing about theology on the internet can be quite bad for the soul, as I’m sure you know.”

    This is true. So why do we keep doing it? I guess it’s cheaper than spirits and doesn’t keep you away from home at nights. (grin)

    Get well and God bless.

  14. […] For a deeper and satisfying explication of this mystery read Fr. Stephen’s blog post entitled “To Know that You Cannot Know.” […]

  15. deannahershiser Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Every word in this post echoes things I recognize, or begin to recognize, along this amazing journey. Thank you.

  16. simmmo Avatar

    Great stuff again Father!

    To be perfectly honest Father stumbling accross Orthodoxy has been such an eye openner for me. I am naturally drawn to the apophatic approach to theology. The way Orthodoxy can uphold the central tenets of the Christian faith, whilst at the same time not condemning others who, for whatever reason, do not accept the Christian faith tells me that there is far more maturity, compassion and wisdom than the tradition I was raised in. It tells me that love of God is truly the centre of Orthodox Christianity.

    This “apophatic” approach to theology also shown me how to “outflank” some of the teachings from my Protestant upbringing that never really sat well with me. I think Orthodoxy simply “outflanks” a lot of Protestant (and RC) positions without having to play an endless game of “proof text ping pong”. For example, notice the wisdom of the Eastern Fathers in prohibitting the reading of Revelation in the divine liturgy. A text that is probably one of the most abused, misused and misunderstood in history. A book that, when in the hands of the unstable and untaught (e.g. the Branch Davidians and some dispensationalists), can be literally deadly. I’ve come to realise that those who profess to know everything about what St John wrote down in the Appocalypse probably don’t know the first thing about it. It’s better to leave such people to their own delusions than to argue and argue and argue. This is much better for the soul.

    As an aside, on Gandhi (as he keeps popping up): I suspect that the aversion many conservative evangelicals have towards Gandhi is purely politcal. I often wonder why conservative evangelicals are so suspicious of anyone who wants to help the plight of the poor in a political forum (often appealling to anti-Christian libertarian philosphies of atheists like Ayn Rand to rationalise their indifference towards the poor). I actually sense deep hatred for Gandhi – even an eagerness to condemn him to hell. That should make us pause and take stock of what it is that is fuelling this hatred (of course this hatred is often rationalised using Biblical language of wrath and so on – the fact that many don’t know what they are talking about (Jesus’ words not mine) when invoking the language of fire and destruction never seems to register with them…). Gandhi’s work for justice was informed in large part by the teachings of our Lord. Yet he isn’t a saint of the church for obvious reasons (yes PJ I agree that venerating him as if he is a saint is not right). But it isn’t surprising in the least that non-Christians can do very godly things since all of humanity is made in the image of God. This false dichotomy we find in evangelical America is troubling. Either Gandhi was a saint OR he was a completely depraved sinner condemned to hell. This is childish to be frank. So the way I think about the question of the eternal fate of Gandhi, or anyone else, is firstly to say that “I don’t know”. Secondly, I would ask myself if Gandhi (and that’s a big “if”), or anyone else, had a share in the age to come, would I rejoice at God’s mercy? Or would I be filled with envy and hatred like the elder brother in the prodigal son parable and refuse to join the banquet?

  17. PJ Avatar


    The very word of Scripture “condemns” those who deny Christ: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

    This is not to say that only Christians are saved, or even that all so-called Christians are saved, just that Scripture is clear that those who deny the Lord put their eternal souls at great risk.

    Furthermore, apophatic theology is widely used within the Catholic Church. Perhaps the most famous apophatic theologian after Dionysius is Meister Eckhart, a western Catholic.

    My suspicion of apophatic spirituality is that it tends towards viewing the Godhead as a monad that is, as Father said, beyond existence (a la Plotinus). Utilized by the spiritually immature, it can lead to thinking that the Trinity is just a useful facade, a cultural creation, one way among many of understanding the Divine, which is ultimately utterly beyond comprehension.

    But the Trinity is not a facade. It is neither an invention of man or a “mode” through which God relates to man. We have the awesome privilege of coming to know the Triune God through Scripture, prayer, and sacrament. Why then lean so heavily on negative mysticism, which seeks to go beyond that which has been presented, that which we know to be good, holy, and true?

    I’ve always thought it strange that Orthodoxy simultaneously stresses apophatic mysticism and a view of the Trinity that is rooted in the persons of God, and particularly the monarchy of the Father. You would think the west would be more susceptible to apophaticism, and especially its excesses, given its belief that essence trumps persons.

  18. Gene B Avatar
    Gene B

    It’s so easy to say ‘The very word of Scripture “condemns” those who deny Christ’ and brush aside all those undesirable people you don’t like. But that judgement is God’s, not ours – but it is easy to take on that role as being God’s chosen one, chosen to dispense judgement. I think I posted previously about my experience working for one such “Christian”. Yet God wills all to be saved..God has pity on us and loves us all. What to we do with this?

    And yet, after loving Orthodoxy after my “change or heart” 15 years ago, being zealous in the faith yet lacking love – certainly at first – there’s tremendous spiritual work that needs to happen before you can look on all people in all honesty with love, and to will them all to be saved too just like God wills it. Can you look upon those who have inflicted great injustice upon you with sincere love, and hope in your heart that they will be standing next to you in heaven? I am just starting to see this and realize the tremendous peace this can bring to your heart when you see everyone around you as a simple child of God on their own journey, and you simply wish them well, no matter who they are or what they are doing. We are all the same, at different stages of our lives! Who knows what you are going though might be needed for the salvation of another – not just yourself!

    This is where so much “theological” banter fails because what it takes to change your heart is just not that kind of learning or discussion. It’s precisely what Father Stephen is saying – you have to cross over to that place where you know what you cannot know, and leave the rest to God. This can only come through prayer and through the Church, I am starting to see this for myself.

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    Well said. In truth, there is much in Scripture that we cannot understand until will know what we cannot know. The disciples clearly do not understand the Scriptures until after the resurrection, and it was not until the “fact” of the resurrection was added to their other information. The risen Christ “opens their minds” so that they may understand the Scriptures. On Sundays we pray that God will “illumine our hearts” so that we may hear the gospel. We presume that a miracle of grace is required before the Gospel can be understood. This weakens what someone would call “the very word of Scripture.”

  20. Brian Avatar

    Christos Yannaras wrote: “Love is the supreme path to knowledge of the person.”

    This is true, I believe, of all persons – including the Persons of the Holy Trinity. The essence of all persons is unfathomable, having been created in the image of the unfathomable God. We are all both knowable and unknowable. Yet we can know God and one another through love, the only path to true knowledge.

    Long before the Church gave definition to dogma there were those who knew God, just as we knew our parents long before we even knew their names. This is knowledge of the person that is far above and almost entirely removed from knowledge about the person. A medical doctor, for example, knows more about me than my wife ever will, yet with all her ignorance of my inner workings my wife can truly say she knows me while the doctor cannot.

    None of this minimizes the importance of dogma; it merely puts it in perspective.

    “This is eternal life: to know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.”

    “And yet I show you a more excellent way…”

  21. Karen Avatar

    Brian, well said!

  22. Andrew Avatar

    Very well said (and put) Father!

  23. Victor Avatar

    I’d like to respond to a few of your concerns/statements:

    “Why then lean so heavily on negative mysticism, which seeks to go beyond that which has been presented, that which we know to be good, holy, and true?”

    St. Gregory of Nyssa refers to the constant interior stretching out or intensification of the appetite for God with every bit of experience (epektasis). True mystical theology does not reject the realities of God that have been revealed to us. It humbly acknowledges that our capacity for experiencing such realities is crippled by sin and death. It is about being healed of all that distorts our experience of God.

    “I’ve always thought it strange that Orthodoxy simultaneously stresses apophatic mysticism and a view of the Trinity that is rooted in the persons of God, and particularly the monarchy of the Father. You would think the west would be more susceptible to apophaticism, and especially its excesses, given its belief that essence trumps persons.”

    I would suggest that this dual emphasis is what keeps Orthodoxy Orthodox. Barlaam of Calabria fell into exactly this kind of excess through reliance on only the essentialist element of trinitarian theology at the expenes of the ‘personalness’ and ‘knowability’ of God…

    In Christ,

  24. PJ Avatar


    “It’s so easy to say ‘The very word of Scripture “condemns” those who deny Christ’ and brush aside all those undesirable people you don’t like.”

    I am absolutely not “brush[ing] aside all those undesirable people [I] dislike.” That is a terrible charge!

    As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to love all men. I do not question this whatsoever. However, love speaks the truth. There is an old saying, “Kindness will kill if love will not wound.”

    And, to my eye, Scripture makes it clear that those who are not firmly committed to Christ put their eternal souls in grave, grave danger, for there is “no name under heaven by which men can be saved.”

    So, do I “brush aside undesirables””? Of course not! Just the opposite, really: I recognize that we Christians have a special obligation to love pagans, to preach the Gospel through word and action, to let the light of Christ shine from our hearts. Even if we know a man is damned to hell, I believe we are obligated to love him. This is the way of Christ.

    But — but — love did not stop Christ from speaking frankly and sharply: “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” Difficult though it may be, we must follow His lead, balancing love and truth, always recalling that our God is both merciful and just.

    God bless you all. Thank you for the fine conversation.

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    Forgive me. I exercised the liberty of editing your reply. The material can be too confusing for some, given present circumstances – but your point is well made. I do not think that you intend to “brush aside undesirables.”

    No religious group, by virtue of its religious actions, is worthy of Christ. It is the heart (which must be seen apart from these things) in which there may be hope, and on account of which we cannot judge.

  26. PJ Avatar

    I am a little uncomfortable with the redaction, but I accept your judgment (ha-ha). Tis your blog and surely your wisdom is greater than mine.

    Anyway, back to the point: it’s not *our* judgment. It is the judgment of the Church and the Scripture from time immemorial that other faiths are both incorrect in their claims and dangerous in their spiritual influence. If they are neither incorrect nor dangerous to the spirit, why bother evangelizing? Why not let Hindus be Hindu, Jews be Jewish, Muslims be Muslim, and so on?

    As I have said before, my wife and I are the only Christians in our whole family. I am well aware of the sensitivity of this issue. But I will not succumb to complacent postmodernity, wherein every “truth” is equal and proselytizing is anathema.

  27. fatherstephen Avatar


    Sorry on the redacting. Trust me.

    I totally agree. No argument with the point re: other faiths. There is salvation only in Christ. But the question always remains, how formal will that salvation look? Is there a possibility of a non-formal salvation? There seems to be a possibility of a non-salvation despite the formal acceptance. There is Mk 9:40 “For he who is not against us is on our side.” Which is an extremely generous statement.

    Nothing should impede the work of mission (I would never countenance a complacent postmodernity – I’ve given my life to missions). But true mission must always exceed the formal. The field is the human heart – about as mysterious a territory as exists anywhere.

  28. PJ Avatar

    Fair enough, fair enough.

  29. PJ Avatar

    RE: The redacting

    I just want everyone to know that I didn’t post something cruel or perverse or hateful. As I’ve said, this is not a matter of individuals but ideas.

  30. Drewster2000 Avatar


    I want to add one thing more. You just said “this is not a matter of individuals but ideas” and yet, it is a man called Gandhi that keeps coming up, not that collection of ideas called Hinduism.

    I think what we’ve been discussing here is the intersection of the person and the ideology. If I may borrow a saying, we are to “hate the sin but love the sinner”, to judge as wrong the incorrect beliefs but to totally accept the person in front of us.

    We are NOT all climbing different sides of the same mountain, but God so loved the world that He allowed His son to go down into Hell and preach to the captives – whether the captives arrived from Noah’s day or from ours. All are presented with the living Christ. All are given the opportunity – nay, the responsibility – to accept or reject the one true God.

    IF Gandhi is welcomed into Heaven, it will be because Jesus presented Himself to him and he accepted Him as Lord and Savior – NOT because his Hindu beliefs were acceptable of no consequence.

    When we meet anyone – whether it’s Gandhi, Hitler, or John Doe – we are called to love the child of God we see in front of us – not judge them. Instead of seeing a Hindu or a Nazi or a nominalist who’s not even a good pagan, we are called to see a child of God.

    Big Picture: False religions will not lead one to Christ. These ideas and beliefs will not bring life and they will NOT make it into Heaven.

    Small Picture: That person in front of you is a child of God. Lost though they may be, they carry His life within them. We are to love them. They have every possibility of going to Heaven; they were made to be with God forever.

    So the question then becomes, how do we love them? As concerns our neighbor, this is what we work out “with fear and trembling” on a daily basis.

  31. Michael Patrick Avatar
    Michael Patrick

    PJ, allow me to take up some things you’ve said:

    You said, “Even if we know a man is damned to hell, I believe we are obligated to love him.”

    I cannot imagine an Orthodox person making such a statement because we know that this is something only God can know. We pray, “I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.”

    You said, “But — but — love did not stop Christ from speaking frankly and sharply: ‘You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?’ Difficult though it may be, we must follow His lead, balancing love and truth, always recalling that our God is both merciful and just.”

    Forgive me, but, again, I cannot imagine an Orthodox person saying such words. No amount of ‘balance’ or ‘recalling’ can remedy our attempt to judge this way. Christ, of course, is both merciful and just because He IS Love and Truth.

    The fear of God is not best appreciated by visions of judgement, hell, torments, exile, anger, or any other thing we may imagine emanating from God’s wrath. It is best appreciated by standing in the uncreated light of God’s grace that sustains our existence, reveals and penetrates our being. To fear God is seeing how utterly unworthy we are in such a place, unable to stand or even glance, naked with nothing but gifts showered upon us. When He then tells us to stand and become perfect men and women, to be His vested bride, to sit and dine with Him, we then see in present reality what kind of frightful judgement His Love can be.

    The judgement of His light is sufficient for all men. He does not call us to sit on thrones before other men. He calls us to shine with His Love which is of itself an invitation to enter in and be judged.

  32. PJ Avatar

    God so loved the world that He sent His Son, yes, but Saint John in the very next verse says that those who do not accept Him are condemned.

    There is a connection between the two statements. The stakes have been heightened, not diminished by the work of Christ.

    People are now more than ever forced to make that fundamental choice between Truth and falsehood, between Creator and creature, between the Living God and dead idols.

    I have long entertained the idea that every person meets Christ at the moment of death, therefore giving everyone the opportunity to “cast their vote.” But perhaps that is not so…

    What I resist is a sort of attitude that pays lip service to the reality of the fundamental “Christ choice,” while at the same time implying that, well, really we are all fine chaps and would God truly allow anyone who isn’t Hitler to spend eternity apart from His love?

    I don’t accuse anyone here of this attitude, but I encounter it regularly. People who think and act like this are captives of misguided charity. They believe they are being magnanimous when really they are complicit in the damnation of souls. It is a most dangerous attitude.

    All of this said, I appreciate your critiques of my words. I tend to think in stark terms, so it is good to remember the wide and deep mercy of the Lord, which surely extends beyond our narrow human categories.

  33. Andrew C Avatar
    Andrew C

    I am entirely with PJ on the matter of Christ-choice. But I am also with those whose concern is for the heart.

    In my flawed Protestant opinion, it is the acceptance of Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit that will lead – hopefully – to the repair of the latter. The gracious promise to Ezekiel is called to mind: “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh”. Roll on that day, I say to myself, as I wrestle daily with the dark places in my own heart.

    Jesus also widened the terms of the deal (from Matthew 21), at least insofar as paying outward court to the religious life yet leading an unrepentant inner life.

    “A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first.”

  34. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Understood, Philip Jude.

    Matthew 7:14 “…narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” It’s just as easy to err on the side “mercy” as it is that of “justice”, such that so-called mercy turns into prostitution and purported justice turns into a witch hunt.

    And that is why truth must be a Person for us instead of an ideology or a set of dogmas. That’s not comfortable for those of us who want policies and guarantees. “He’s not a tame lion….but He is good.” It’s not comfortable but is the best way. He is the only way in fact. (grin)

  35. Andrew Avatar

    If I may Drew,

    The following quote, understood in the light of the resurrection:

    We are to hate the sin but love the sinner.

    Should read as follows:

    We are to hate our own sin whilst loving our neighbour.

    This is fact, is true freedom, health, wealth etc

  36. Drewster2000 Avatar


    I accept both statements to be true. We are to hate sin. Period. No matter whether we find it in our own hearts, in our nation’s policies, or in the lives of our neighbors.

    In fact much of the discussion has been about just exactly what it means when we are told to love our neighbor. My point that we are not called to love our neighbor’s Hinduism, but we are called to love our neighbor.

  37. fatherstephen Avatar

    Michael Patrick,
    I think you make the point very well. PJ, I think you mistake the typical Orthodox emphasis on non-judgment with the typical liberal/post-modern relativist reluctance to say anything is actually true. Orthodoxy utterly affirms that salvation is in Christ alone. But it also recognizes the dangers in how we say the things we say. We are taught that God alone judges and to refrain from judging (especially in our hearts). Christ, of course, said the things that He said (“Brood of vipers, etc.”). However, He nowhere commands us to “go and say thou likewise.” Just because He said it does not mean I am to say it. Saying it because He said it is, forgive me, a misuse of the Scriptures.

    If I may, I think you are defending something that no one is actually arguing with here. Though there is an argument with the judging (or the nature of it) for we are taught repeatedly in the Orthodox life not to do this. It’s bad for the heart.

    But, I understand the “love the sinner,” to be saying that you agree with this. Thus, I think there is not really any disagreement here.

  38. dee Avatar

    I was reminded of a fantastic passage relating to the pitfalls of these glorious conversations of ours by Elder Aimilianos Simonopetritis (it, unfortunately, only exists in Greek in the book “analysis of Saints Anthony’s, Agustin’s and Makarius’ monastic cannons”).

    He employs the example of Origen to make this point: although Origen meant well, loved the Lord, adored the truth and did everything in his power to always s p e a k the truth he fell into heresy. The Fathers humbly wanted to B E the truth, not to speak it;
    and the fathers afterwards used him (since he is so fabulous) without mentioning him…

    I described this point from that passage very poorly from memory here, but it is a very deep one…

  39. Andrew Avatar

    Drew, once again if I may:

    The problem with the first statement is that it tends to mean the mote in someone else’s eye.

    It’s not that the second statement is simply true. It’s the very way to eternal life, the hidden manna if you will, the exegesis of the undivided and eternal logos.

  40. dinoship Avatar

    I couldn’t agree with you Andrew more… It really is the way to humility and unshakeable trust, to see that only I am a sinner and everybody else belongs to God

  41. Andrew Avatar

    Thank you. Yes, that’s absolute freedom….

  42. PJ Avatar

    Let us turn to Scripture, as we always should when trying to learn how to live properly.

    My wife and I have a policy: When we see the other sinning, we first act so as to emphasize the virtue the other is neglecting; if that does not work, we speak frankly but with charity. This we gleaned from Levitcus 19:17: “Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt.”

    Further, the Lord said: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. ”

    And in Luke relays the same message in more general terms, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”

    To be quiet when someone is sinning is not charitable. Of course, it is easy to lapse into equally uncharitable judgment and Pharisaical self-righteousness. This is why we pray for wisdom and the ability to forgive.

    “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”

  43. Andrew Avatar

    The problem with that approach PJ, is that avoiding the occasion to sin does not in itself constitute righteousness. In fact, it often leads to rancour.

    The Lord’s way is simple – Luke 10:27: Deus caritas est..

    Put another way, by walking along the (actual) path set by the divine person of God, even the Shechinah becomes your friend.

  44. Michael Patrick Avatar
    Michael Patrick

    PJ, I can’t help but notice that the subject has changed from choosing or denying Christ to restoring a brother in faith. For the later I think you’ve found some great verses and, for what it’s worth, I agree.

  45. Drewster2000 Avatar


    I agree with you. However, “only I am a sinner and everybody else belongs to God” effects our salvation but does nothing to help us know how to love our Hindu neighbor without also loving his Hinduism.

    Your statements are excellent concerning personal piety though.

  46. Andrew Avatar

    Thank you for comment Drew.

    Important to remember that God did not create religions (or -isms and divisions), he simply made persons in his own image, having therefore the capacity to love and be loved.

  47. dee Avatar

    Saint Isaac the Syrian used to say that the true measure of Purity is that you see everyone as a saint, discernment comes after that as a gift (but the way it is asked for here – ‘not to love hinduism- is beside the point)

  48. fatherstephen Avatar

    Drewster, et al.
    I’ll offer an observation from my own experience. I have done Christian evangelism (in one form or another) since I was around 19 years old. I’ve seen people come to Christ from every imaginable background (at least within American multiculture). I cannot separate someone from their religion/philosophy or lack thereof without at the same time doing some diminishment of their person. There are frequently things within their religious beliefs (or lack of them) or philosophies that become a point of salvation – or its inauguration. I’ve never been comfortable with the “love the sinner, hate the sin” idea (it’s not a Biblical phrase) and I have yet to find anyone who successfully practices it. It’s always “love the sinner (theoretically), hate the sin (practically). There’s no sympathy, no understanding, nothing “incarnate,” in such a witness. St. Paul doesn’t speak to the Athenians about how bad paganism is – he spoke about their shrine to an Unknown God – he even quotes a pagan poet. If someone had hated my sin and professed to love me at the same time, I don’t think they would have gotten my attention in the least. I grew up with lots of people who hated sin (especially imaginary ones).

    Again, there’s no question about being “soft on sin” or changing the dogma of the Church in any way. But if we can’t love the sinner, warts and all, we shouldn’t engage in mission (including internet mission). We would do more harm than good. God will guard the gates. It’s our task to help people want to gain entry.

  49. Karen Avatar

    Amen to that last comment, Father. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the life of Mother Gabrielia of Greece. Her biography would be good reading for all as an example of what loving sinners according to the way of Christ really looks like.

  50. Andrew Avatar

    Well said indeed Father, and of course, well put too.

  51. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    There is the inconvenient reality that the Christ message is inherently offensive and scandalous. You can’t preach Christ without the whole “you are a filthy sinner in need of salvation” thing. And if the auditor is a pious Muslim, Jew, etc. amenable to such a lowly view of “natural” man, then he will be offended by the whole “God became man and was nailed to a tree” thing.

  52. Michael Patrick Avatar
    Michael Patrick

    To know who’s commenting, is “PJ” and “Philip Jude” one person or are these two persons?

  53. dee Avatar

    There is an “inconveniencing” for sure, but, It is the Ego that needs to be inconvenienced not the other, otherwise God will say to us: I do not know you…

  54. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I accept your counsel and retract my earlier statement. I guess I’m coming at it from a slightly different angle. What I’m looking at is how you rub shoulders with such a person on a daily basis. How do I live next to them, be friendly, show love, and yet refuse to join them in their sweat lodge session or wikka meetings, decline invitations to services at their mosque or synagogue, not encourage their continuation in going down the wrong path when my opinion is solicited – all in a Christian manner? This is the balance I was speaking of and I think this is what one has to work out on a case-by-case basis.

    I misspoke when I used the word “hate”; I simply meant not condoning what I know to be wrong, while still loving the practicioner of these things. I don’t think there is one set answer since each situation may be different. Therefore I don’t really expect an answer, but I did want to explain myself a bit.

  55. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Philip Jude (A.K.A. PJ)

    Well said. The mystery is how the “God became man and was nailed to a tree” thing comes out through our actions. I think this is where laying down our life for our neighbor comes into play.

  56. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    I am Philip Jude.


    I know that I am a sinner. But I also know that every other man is a sinner. “The Bible tells me so.” The two aren’t mutually exclusive.


    “What I’m looking at is how you rub shoulders with such a person on a daily basis. How do I live next to them, be friendly, show love, and yet refuse to join them in their sweat lodge session or wikka meetings, decline invitations to services at their mosque or synagogue, not encourage their continuation in going down the wrong path when my opinion is solicited – all in a Christian manner? This is the balance I was speaking of and I think this is what one has to work out on a case-by-case basis. ”

    What you are doing *is* loving. If you participate in their idolatry, you implicitly condone and encourage it. This would be harmful and uncharitable. Remaining silent regarding the Savior is equally harmful and uncharitable.

    This doesn’t mean you should get in their faces. It doesn’t mean you need to be cruel. It doesn’t mean you should spew brimstone and hellfire. It doesn’t mean you should mock or deride or debase them.

    In “Caritas in veritate (Love in Truth”), Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “Because it is filled with truth, charity can be understood in the abundance of its values, it can be shared and communicated. Truth, in fact, is lógos which creates diá-logos, and hence communication and communion. Truth, by enabling men and women to let go of their subjective opinions and impressions, allows them to move beyond cultural and historical limitations and to come together in the assessment of the value and substance of things. Truth opens and unites our minds in the lógos of love: this is the Christian proclamation and testimony of charity. In the present social and cultural context, where there is a widespread tendency to relativize truth, practising charity in truth helps people to understand that adhering to the values of Christianity is not merely useful but essential for building a good society and for true integral human development. A Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance. In other words, there would no longer be any real place for God in the world. Without truth, charity is confined to a narrow field devoid of relations. It is excluded from the plans and processes of promoting human development of universal range, in dialogue between knowledge and praxis.”

    We are called to proclaim the truth — the Truth — with mercy and tenderness, bearing in mind our own failures and the dignity of the other.

  57. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    Indeed. An apocaryphal proverb of Saint Francis comes to mind, “Preach the Gospel. Use words when necessary.”

  58. Drewster2000 Avatar

    “This doesn’t mean you should get in their faces. It doesn’t mean you need to be cruel. It doesn’t mean you should spew brimstone and hellfire. It doesn’t mean you should mock or deride or debase them.”

    I understand and agree, but surely you will also agree with me that North Americans at least find it very difficult to sort of live and let live, to decline their invitations without condemning their actions. We seem stuck in an either/or situation (easy to imagine since much of western theology & philosophy seems to be built on the either/or mindset).

    In this fictional case, either I accept the invitation to the mosque because I’m a “nice and loving” Christian, or I refuse by starting to tell them about my faith in some tacky and inappropriate way.

    I realize there is probably a middle ground or different path to take here, but the imagining of it doesn’t come near as easy. Perhaps you or someone else could model such a conversation for me. I’m not being facetious.

  59. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    Well, you don’t necessarily need to refuse the invitation on religious grounds. Simply say you are otherwise engaged. The preaching of the Gospel need not occur then, either. Tit-for-tat can be very unproductive.

    Of course, every situation is different. And, in certain circumstances, perhaps going to the mosque or wicca circle is acceptable, so long as you refrain from bending your knees to idols. Trust is important in evangelizing.

    Muslims, for the record, are said to be very taken by the story of the Prodigal Son, because the Father stands in such contrast to Allah.

  60. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Yes Philip Jude, you make my point very well.

    When I spoke of hating the sin and loving the sinner, I did that very poorly, but this is what I was trying to get at. Loving your neighbor when he’s calling you to participate in his beliefs is where it becomes tricky and requires the practice of discernment on a case-by-case basis.

    For instance, I might visit a mosque as a guest unless I thought I was leading my friend on. On the other hand I don’t think I’d ever consider going to a wicca circle.

    Discernment. Working out our faith in fear and trembling. Yes I do realize that most of us don’t have to deal with this on a daily basis, but as we become more “multicultural” in the west, the challenge is becoming more real and practical solutions more necessary.

    Thanks for engaging me in this.

  61. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    On second thought, I think I have to agree about the wicca business. At least the Muslims are on the right track. But when it comes to outright paganism like witchcraft, you’re asking for trouble, playing with unruly and menacing powers whose danger can hardly be overestimated.

  62. Anglican Peggy Avatar
    Anglican Peggy

    As per usual around here, this discussion has gone quickly over my head. I hesitate to add anything but something happened to me the other day that I think might be related now that I have read what Fr Stephen has written.

    I had a brief run-in with an atheist on another website. Being fresh from an exhausting online theological battle with a Jewish believer who had no love to spare for us pagan “cannibals” I was in no mood for this guy and I was atypically sharp and curt with him. He came back with some link to a particularly unlovely Old Testament text torn from all context or understanding. Behold, he enlightened me, the God that you worship. He then called me worse than stupid. I was an apologist for evil.

    Normally, I would have unleashed upon him my whole arsenal and gone round after fruitless round with him. But I surprised myself with the answer that came to me.

    I told him that was not the God that I worshiped. I did not recognize him at all in that text. I also told him he didn’t know the first thing about religion.

    That was all I said. I washed my hands of the argument and have felt no temptation to go back and see how he replied.

    Immediately after hitting the submit button, I started to wonder about what I had said. What I said was true. In other words, I have some knowledge of God. The more that I thought about it, I realized that some small portion of this admittedly small store of knowledge seems to be the kind that comes from actual experience, if that is the right word, not from Scripture. As if, I would be able to recognize God in a lineup no matter what his guise no matter what distraction was present.

    That last may or may not be true if really put to the test. But if I am right about it, then Father Stephen’s post here just made me much better able to appreciate the significance of this knowledge by experience and to also, I hope, be better able to articulate to others what it is and isn’t. It feels a bit like serendipity.

  63. Anglican Peggy Avatar
    Anglican Peggy

    On second thought, I would like to amend something in my first comment.

    I made it seem like I was first arguing with a Messianic Jew by using the words Jewish believer. I should have said religious Jew or stridently Orthodox Jew. I don’t want people going, huh??? when it comes to that part of my story 🙂

  64. Karen Avatar

    Father, bless! With regard to “knowing” God would you offer a brief commentary (with your knowledge of the original Greek) on the meaning of 1 John 2:3–how it is we “know” that we “know” Him? I ask because my husband’s Evangelical pastor is preaching a series through this epistle right now and covered this chapter today (but not to the satisfaction, admittedly, of my Orthodox sensibilities!), and his treatment of the “knowledge” of God, was that the rational informs and leads to the experiential, and to infer that it is not the other way around (at least in this context).

    I’m also struggling with the content of the children’s curriculum on “How to become a Christian” from my daughter’s 5th grade ss class at the same church. The first section on “salvation” (which session, blessedly, my daughter missed) follows the typical “Four spiritual laws” outline. Two illustrations and statements (on the first two pages) are already very problematic for me. The first on how sin separates us from God (because we are “dirtied” by our sin and God can’t have anything to do with sin and thus, by extension, with the people dirtied by it!) also has the following illustration. There are two cliffs separated by a great gulf in the middle. On one side are people with their eyes trained over the gulf of separation looking toward the other cliff with anxious expressions on their faces. On the other cliff stands a big sign with the words “God Perfect” on it and an arrow pointing in the opposite direction of the people.

    Are we as sinful people really anxiously seeking God as the people on the cliff appear to be? Is God somewhere out of the picture and moving away from us to make sure He keeps well clear of our sin?

    The second illustration is a story of “The Muddy Girl” who goes out plays in the mud and is stopped at the door by her father who forbids her to enter the house until he has first hosed off the mud.

    Is our sin really like mud in this sense? And is God like a fastidious parent more concerned about the cleanliness of his house than what the “mud” is doing to his daughter?

    With regard to both of these illustrations, all I could think of was how when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, they went away and hid from God, while He came looking for them, and lovingly made them coverings from the skins of animals to clothe their shame and nakedness (a picture of the provisional nature–and the limitations–of the Old Covenant sacrificial system if ever there was one). The same with the Parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and the Lost Son (Prodigal Son)! Top that off with the reality of the Gospel accounts of God entering our sin-sick world in the Person of His Son and being laid as a newborn, for want of a more appropriate place, in the feeding box of a dirty stable for animals, surrounded by mud, clay, straw, and the stink of animal urine and manure! That was only the beginning of the humiliations He endured for our sake. And Jesus makes it very clear that anyone who has seen Him has seen the Father also! How can modern Christians think that these modern illustrations are compatible with what the Gospel really teaches? It is beyond me!

  65. fatherstephen Avatar

    Your instincts on these two stories are spot on, it seems to me. Particularly in that the gospel is the story of God looking for us, not us looking for Him. “We love Him because He first loved us.” (1 Jn. 4:19) We are not on the outside of heaven looking to get in. We live with heaven all around us (The Kingdom of God is at hand) and we refuse it.

    Thou didst call us from nonbeing into being, and when we had fallen away, Thou didst raise us up again, and didst not cease to do all things until Thou hadst brought us up to heaven, and hadst bestowed upon us Thy kingdom which is to come.

    People have false images in their head because, forgetting the actual shape of the Biblical story, they have their own culturally driven (or culture-Church-driven) imagination. The illustrations work for them, because it is how they think. It is why I spend as much time as I do writing about images and metaphors (as well as questioning myself privately about my own images and metaphors). Such things govern how we read and shape the gospel, for good or ill.

    Of course, on the topic of “knowing God,” there is always the danger that one comes to know a “projection” of God and not the true God. This requires that we be in lively contact with the Tradition, with those living the faith whose lives bear witness to their true faithfulness, etc. But an inward knowing is certainly promised to us in Christ, in the Tradition, and in the services of the Church and the lives of the saints. I expect it, and pursue it with the knowledge of that promise.

    I had a few years within the charismatic movement as a young man (17-20+). Coming out of that movement, I was deeply aware of spiritual delusion and deeply concerned not to be deluded again. It drew me deeper and deeper towards the Tradition, eventually to Orthodoxy itself. But the possibility of true knowledge of God was something I never renounced (nor have I needed to). I first read Lossky in my early 20’s and was excited by what I read, though most of it was well beyond my understanding. That same hunger continues to this day, with the added motivation that having some taste of that Reality, I only want more. It is eternal life.

  66. simmmo Avatar

    It seems that knowing what cannot be known is starting to get back in vogue. I was reading a few Economics articles recently (if anyone knows anything about the way academic economics has gone over the last 30 years or so they’d realise that if there was any class of persons who thought they knew it all it would be economists!) and currently we are writing papers entitled “Time to Deal with the Pretense-of-Knowledge Syndrome” and “What can economists know?”. The impact of economic theories that reduce human beings to “homo-economicus” (the scientific overtones of such technical language should be enough to demonstrate that economists have been fooling themselves about how much they can know about complex creatures like human beings for a long time) are far more pervasive than what normal people think. But finally even arrogant economists are asking themselves, can we really put a thing as complex as a human being into a nice little economic equation and predict the way society is going to behave based on this? I think the way economics has progressed over the last 30-40 years has mirrored Western theological developments from about the middle ages onwards. Taking after Islamic philosophers who attempted to do theology using Aristotelian logic, many of the influential Western theologians simply followed suit. Just as in economics, irrational behaviour of humans was simply assumed away, so in Western theology, mystery was marginalised. It’s striking to reread the apostle Paul looking out for his references to mystery. It’s a far more important theme in Paul than I had previously noticed. In fact I hadn’t noticed mystery in Paul before. St Paul knew what can not be known. I think it’s sometimes wiser to admit “I simply don’t know” than to follow the modernist folly of pretending to know it all.

  67. Andrew C Avatar
    Andrew C

    Though from a Protestant background, I, too, find pictures like the ones you mention a problem. Though perhaps helpful, and not, in my view, altogether erroneous (sin does separate us from God, or at least impair our normal relationship with him: why else did Adam hide?), the pictures have come to take the place of the fuller picture – as is widely remarked in these pages. We replace, say, the atonement as an article of faith (“for us men and for our salvation…”) with a particular theory of it.

    As for sinners earnestly seeking God, I find that apathy is more the order of the day: as John Betjeman (a poet much-loved in England) wrote:

    Some know for all their lives that Christ is God,
    Some start upon that arduous love affair
    In clouds of doubt and argument; and some
    (My closest friends) seem not to want to know His love –
    And why this is I wish to God I knew.

    In all of the “Lost” parables there is an obvious mapping between something lost (us) and something looking (God) – although I am sure we can see additional allegories too.

    The problem Christians of any stripe face is to persuade anyone they are in need of anything and, apart from the Spirit, none can see that.

  68. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    Why don’t you suggest that they simply illustrate the true parables of Christ?


    If you are still in contact with that Jewish fellow, you might recommend, “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist” by Dr. Brant Pitre. He is Catholic but a high church Anglican or an Orthodox can easily appreciate it. The book is absolutely eye-opening.

    The Eucharist is thoroughly Biblical. It also draws heavily on the culture of the Second Temple Period, which is alien to many contemporary Jews.

    For instance, did you know that, during the STP, the high priests would, on certain holidays, take out the Showbread, the Bread of Presence, and hold it up before the crowds of pilgrims, proclaiming, “This is the love of your God.” I kid you not.

  69. Karen Avatar

    Thanks, all! I will make some suggestions to the children’s and the teaching pastors at my husband’s church. At least it might get them thinking a little more about these things.

  70. Ron Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, what is the source of the St. Gregory quote in the fourth paragraph?

  71. Andrew Avatar

    …now we’re talking. 🙂

  72. fatherstephen Avatar

    The quote is from memory – I’ll have to track it down. It may take a bit… The point of the quote, of course, is the distinction it makes between the being of the Uncreated and the being of the created.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. Fr. Stephen, “The mystery of the Incarnation of the Word contains in itself the meaning of all the symbols and…

  2. Matthew, Given some of your own comments about the negative effects of certain Protestant theology you have experienced, I would…

  3. Thanks so much everyone. So … I have been hanging around here regularly for about 6 months now. I have…

  4. Father, It seems to me that humility and sobriety go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other.…

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast