The Mystery, Upborne, Fulfilled

Orthodoxy has a number of “favorite” words – all of which fall outside the bounds of normal speech. Though we commonly use the word “mystery” (for example), popular speech never uses it in the manner of the Church. I cannot remember using the word “fullness,” or even “fulfilled,” in normal speech. More contemporary words have come to replace these expressions. This doesn’t mean that an English speaker has no idea of what the words mean – but, again, they do not understand these words in the manner of the Church. There is a reality to which words such as mystery and fullness refer – a reality that carries the very heart of the Orthodox understanding of the world and its relation to God.

In popular usage, the word mystery has become synonymous with puzzle. Thus a mystery is something we do not know, but something that, with careful investigation is likely to be revealed. In the Church, mystery is something which by its very nature is unknown, and can only be known in a manner unlike anything else.

Words such as fullness and fulfilled are equally important and specialized in the language of the Church, but whose meanings bear little resemblance to popular speech.  Fullness (pleroma), occurs a number of times in the New Testament. It was also a favorite word in the writings of the gnostics. In Christian usage it refers to a spiritual wholeness or completeness that is being manifested or revealed in some way. It is more than a Divine act – it carries with it something of the Divine itself. It is not simply the action of God, but is itself God. Prior actions and words may have hinted at the fullness, but in the revelation of the fullness all hints will have passed away and been replaced by the fulness itself.

The core understanding of words such as mystery and fullness is the belief that our world has a relationship beyond itself, or beyond what seems obvious. The world is symbol, icon and sacrament. Mystery and fullness reference the reality carried as symbol, icon and sacrament.

Many people read the frequent statement in the gospels: “This was done so that the prophecy of Isaiah (or one of the other prophets) might be fulfilled….” What many people think this means is that the prophet made a prediction and it came true. Biblical prophecy (in a proper Christian understanding) has little to nothing to do with prediction. The prophets do not see the future – they see the fullness. What comes to pass is the fullness breaking into our world such that the prophecy “has been fulfilled.”

This same fulness is referenced in Ephesians:

And He [the Father] put all things under His [Christ’s] feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all (1:22-23).

This description of the Church as the “fullness,” is among the most startling statements in Scripture. The phrase, “the fullness of Him that filleth all in all,” is an early version of “God became man so that man might become god” (St. Athanasius, 4th century). God is the one who fills, and we are what is filled (or even the “filling”). At least as striking is a kindred passage in Colossians (the two letters have many similarities):

For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power (2:9-10).

The English disguises the wordplay within the verse. We are told that “in Christ dwells all the fullness (pleroma) of the Godhead (or deity) bodily, and you are the ones who have been made full (pepleromenoi) in Him…” Again, this time Christ is described as the fullness, but we have also been made the fullness (pleroma) in Him. His life is our life, and this life or fullness is precisely that which is important about us.

The idea is not dissimilar to Christ’s statements in St. John’s gospel:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me (17:20-23).

In John, Christ has given us “his glory,” just as the Father gave Him glory. Glory is not praise or reputation, but rather something substantial (as I search for words). In Hebrew, glory (Kavod) is precisely something substantial, the weight of something. God’s kavod pushes the priests to the ground at the consecration of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 8:11). But glory is not simply an effect of God, it is, somehow, God’s presence itself.

Fullness has a relation to glory, in this substantial sense.

… we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full [pleres] of grace and truth…. And of His fullness [pleroma] we have all received, and grace for grace (Jn. 1:14 and 16).

The glory of the only begotten is full of grace and truth and it is of this fullness that we have all received.

I am sure that this excursion through Scripture may be somewhat tedious for readers – but it is an excursion through unknown territory for many. Mystery, fullness, glory and the like are largely neglected in many of the doctrinal structures of the West. Where they are not neglected they are stripped of mystical content and morphed into more rational systems.

Within the Orthodox East, the mystical content is allowed to shine forth – particularly within the liturgical life and prayers of the Church (this is also true of the ascetical tradition of the Church). One place where language and reality are deeply united is in the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts (celebrated on the weekdays of Great Lent and Holy Week). The Eucharist is not celebrated on these days, but communion is given from the gifts consecrated on the Sunday previous – thus the “Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts.”

It is a very solemn service, with a liturgical “climax” when the Pre-Sanctified Gifts are brought out of the Altar and processed through the congregation in silence. The congregation is prostrate during this procession with faces to the floor. Thus the procession occurs in silence and “invisibly.”

Just before the entrance, the choir sings, “Now the powers of heaven do serve invisibly with us. Lo, the King of glory enters. Lo, the mystical sacrifice is upborne, fulfilled.” The Gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood are indeed the “mystical sacrifice,” the very mystery hidden from the ages made manifest and present in the midst of the Church. This same mystery is also the fullness – its presence is fulfilled.

The Christian life lived within the mystery is a life in which God is hidden, made known, revealed, perceived. It is a life in which the Kingdom of God is breaking forth, not destroying nature but fulfilling it. In the same manner, we are not destroyed by our union with Christ but rather fulfilled. We become what we were created to be – the fullness of that life and more is made manifest within our own lives.

It is this same fullness that describes the lives of saints. Saints are more than moral exemplars to be copied – they have the quality of life-fulfilled. In them the fullness that is ours in Christ is made manifest.

The mystical life marks the whole of Orthodox Christianity. It’s doctrines are replete with references to the mystery and speak of matters such as the atonement in a manner that is consistent with the revelation of this mystery. The Conciliar definitions, from first to last, are rooted in this language and presuppose its grammar within every aspect of the life of the Church.

Upborne, fulfilled.

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.





54 responses to “The Mystery, Upborne, Fulfilled”

  1. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    Very good.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    Philip Jude,
    Thanks. It may be a bit thick – but it’s been bumping around inside me for several weeks – and I needed to get it out and written. In one way or another, this is a significant part of my meditations over the past two months.

  3. Russ Mangiapane Avatar
    Russ Mangiapane

    Keep getting it out…This is truly the Good News! The gospel has been reduced and watered down so much that when we need to read something so “thick” to nourish our starving souls!

  4. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    “It is this same fullness that describes the lives of saints. Saints are more than moral exemplars to be copied – they have the quality of life-fulfilled. In them the fullness that is ours in Christ is made manifest.”

    This hit home with me. Lately, I have been very aware of how grateful I am to the saints. When I am wracked by doubts, I consider the paschal joy of the witnesses and I am restored.

  5. sergieyes Avatar

    Our language has departed from Truth due to the influence of radicals during some of the “Enlightenments .” France, Germany and Scotland had such “Enlightenments”, very detrimental affairs indeed. Anglo Saxon,spoken before any Enlightenment got to it, carried much piety, and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (Pater Imon…) in Anglo Saxon can be gotten from JRR Tolkien. Romantics such as Wordsworth and Tolkien have tried to carry us back to Orthodoxy, and are still struggling in that arena. Thank God Orthodoxy has never abandoned speaking Truth to radicalism.

  6. rmdoson Avatar

    Absolutely wonderful, Fr. Stephen! Many thanks!

  7. paula Avatar

    I think that you have expressed very nearly the feeling that struck me to silence the first time I entered an Orthodox Church. I thought ‘here ,you can feel God’s heartbeat!’ and I was home in the mystery at last.

  8. JSCFK Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen, for continuing to write this blog so faithfully. Many many readers appreciate your words and thoughts.

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, can you expand on your phrase: “Mystery and fullness reference the reality carried as symbol, icon and sacrament..”

    Especially the difference between symbol and sacrament and the difference (I think) between the Church’s understanding of symbol and the usual understanding of the word?

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    I follow Schmemann very closely on the definition of symbol. In his understanding, a symbol is a point at which two things (realities) come together. The world as symbol or sacrament would mean that everything carries more than itself. I’m hesitating to say “what” it carries because that is more than I know in most cases. Schmemann argues that this is, in fact, the proper state of nature, rightly understood. The sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood is not unique as “sacrament,” what is unique is that it is Christ’s Body and Blood. The character of the world as symbol is the fact that it is capable of bearing the holy – of being more than is described in our physics.
    In such an understanding, “sacrament” is in fact something of an odd word (indeed it is from the Catholic West). The Eastern fathers were perfectly comfortable describing the Eucharist as symbol and mystery. The West came to use symbol to mean something that stands for something that is not there. Thus to say the Eucharist was symbol was to deny the “real presence.” But this also has a way of making the Eucharistic presence to be so unique because nothing else has this “sacramental” reality. Thus the world becomes “secular,” incapable of such true, symbolic function.
    The Church’s understanding of symbol is almost the opposite of that in the West. In Orthodoxy, “symbol” is the coming together of two realities. Bread is obviously not obliterated in the sacrament – and I offer no theory of consecration. Such theories are silliness, it seems to me. But I believe (and confess) that it is truly Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist.
    I believe most deeply that the recovery of a proper understanding of symbol (of which sacrament would be an example) is very important in addressing the crisis of modern secularism. It’s important because the secular view of the world is not true, and the older symbolic is.
    Is that something of what you had in mind?
    It’s hard enough, I think, for people to get this. It’s why I’ve written about a One-Storey Universe, and this recent material on mystery, symbol and fullness, etc.

  11. Lina Avatar

    Fr. Stephen:

    I have the same problem as Michael. I looked in the dictionary and saw that the word symbol is composed of two words. Sym and bol.
    And can mean to throw together or put together. Which seems a far cry from what it has come to mean.

    Could you please explain: The world is symbol, icon and sacrament.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s modern meaning is indeed a far cry from its original.

    The dictionary is correct. It is from Sym (together) and Bole (to throw). Thus a symbol is two things brought together. The opposite of symbolic is “diabolic” (dia “apart” and bole “throw”). The Devil divides.

    In its original meaning to say something was symbolic was to say that it actually made present what it represented. In modern usage, symbolic means that what is represented is actually not there. In the secular world, there is no true belief in the ancient (and Orthodox) meaning of symbol. Things are only things, and are only what they are. Any representation is just an idea in our heads. Something may make us think of something else, and is therefore “symbolic” in the modern sense. But modern thought would say that there is no actual connection between the two.

    Classical Christian, Orthodox thought is “realist.” It believes that what these things represent are real and are, in fact, made present by that which symbolizes them.

    In another vein, the ancient model believes we know something, not merely by thinking about it, but ultimately by participation. There is thus a “communion” between us and the world, between us and what we perceive, and it is this communion that is true knowledge. In the modern world, there can be no communion other than the sharing of similar ideas. There is only stuff, and thinking about stuff.

    The classical worldview, which alone allows for true communion, true knowledge, is the only way in which the fullness of the gospel can actually be preached – for the gospel clearly believes in communion, true knowledge and participation.

    Hope this is helpful. I’ll keep writing and answering. The questions are helpful, very helpful. This is truly foundational.

    At present I am working on an idea for another book developing along the lines of all of this. I appreciate as much thought and feedback that any of you have to offer.

  13. dinoship Avatar

    every time I have attempted translating something from our splendid Greek hymnography or the Philokalia etc. into English I encounter this very problem of either using more or less the same amount of words as the original, (retaining the flow and energy) but loosing the meaning) or having to use extensive explanations (to retain the meaning) at the expense of ‘flow’, I think I prefer the latter though, would you have a preference?
    How on earth can one properly translate words such as ‘Nous’, ‘Logos’?
    Or does one always “need to know Maths first in order to understand terms such as ‘Integrals’ “?

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    It depends on the reading audience. If I’m reading, I like something consistent so that I can think about what’s behind it. If I’m writing for others (like here), I tend to want to expand the word so that the meaning is understood (since this is likely the problem I’m writing about). If possible, I like to read in the original language – particularly if I’m reading the Scriptures. I do not have the Philokalia in Greek – that would be a delight. It’s very frustrating to wonder about the original but not be able to get to it.

    Hymnography, if it’s to be sung, cannot expand. English, of course, is a difficult form for translating Greek – there’s inevitably too many syllables in English. It’s much easier if you’re translating for Russian hymnography where the reciting note can handle any number of syllables.

    The Slavonic translations often follow the Greek quite literally – even syllable for syllable. But in English it’s almost impossible. There’s a new translation this year of Christos Anesti, used by the Greek Archdiocese, that tries to at least make the text fit the Greek chant better. But it has to use odd constructions such as “trampling down upon death.” This is not something we would normally say in English – it’s somewhat redundant, but it is the same problem that you’ve described. Alas. The tower of Babel continues to thwart us!

  15. dinoship Avatar

    Thank you Father,
    I was just reading an article speculating about the possibility of only English and Mandarin truly surviving for the next century, whether correct or not, it reminded me what a pity it is already that very few people can understand ancient Greek -even amongst educated Greeks- nowadays… The depth of the Paschal Canon, for instance, coupled with its artistic magnificence therefore eludes (to some degree) even those believers that have the necessary scriptural knowledge

  16. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    “In another vein, the ancient model believes we know something, not merely by thinking about it, but ultimately by participation.”

    I believe this is where the fundamentalists begin to holler, “Plato! Plato!” (If indeed they know who Plato is.)

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    Philip Jude,
    You’re right. Of course, the fundamentalists yell this out of ignorance. To yell, “Plato, Plato,” is like yelling, “Hebrew, Hebrew!” when reading the Old Testament. Much of Plato is simply the dominant world-view of the Hellenistic world of the 1st number of centuries of the Christian era. The New Testament is replete with it (and cannot be understood without knowledge of it). The early Eastern fathers were thoroughly conversant with it (unlike fundamentalists) and were quite capable and energetic about refuting its errors, as they were enthusiastic about using its insights. The entire condemnation of Origen, as well as the continued use of parts of Origen, turn on the very careful use of Platonic understanding.

    Of course, the fundamentalists do not shout, “Nominalism! Nominalism!” With regard to their own thoughts – though they hold to a nominalist understanding throughout (it is, after all, the “Via Moderna”). The only response one can make to ignorance is to educate. Hence the blog.

  18. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    But the apostles weren’t Greeks but Jews. I realize that they were living in a Mediterranean world dominated by Greek thought, but the Jews made a conscious effort to set themselves apart, especially in the wake of the Maccabees. And, with the exception of Paul, the apostles were Palestinian Jews.

    It’s hard to picture Plato being read in Capernaum, and it strikes me as strange to imagine that a Hebrew fisherman like Peter was a product of Hellenism. This raises the question as to whether certain church fathers read Plato into Scripture, whether they took certain words and “ran with them,” so to speak.

    Take II Peter 1:4. Is the apostle talking about ontological participation, as many Orthodox fathers suggest, or merely moral similitude, as many Reformed thinkers suggest. Which is the result of exegesis and which is the result of eisegesis?

    My theology is more Orthodox than Reformed, but these questions are legitimate.

  19. Patrick Conner Avatar
    Patrick Conner


    Thank you Father. As I now live in a place with no Orthodox Church, I look to your writings to meet a most urgent need. Thank you for your instruction.

    Asking for Your Blessing,


  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, thank you. Your explanation is similar to what I have been taught and confess (following Schmemann too). I’ve come to regard the meaning to be the connection between the seen and the unseen, thus all that we do in the Church is symbol (if done properly) and an expression of the Incarnation. It seems that all three words you use, symbol, icon and sacrament are actually quite close in reality are they not?

    Of course, the connection (if that is the correct word perhaps it is more revelatory) exists only by the grace of the activity of the Holy Spirit does it not?

    As an aside, I’m a bit confused by the description of icons as windows into heaven as that connotes a mere observation. It seems to me that a more proper description would be as a doorway which allows entrance and experience of the Kingdom rather than just observing from afar. Is not the ‘window’ explanation a bit to two storey?

  21. dinoship Avatar

    II Peter 1:4 is a good example of how the original Greek (and not Hebrew may I note…) “θείας κοινωνοὶ φύσεως” translated as the only way it could, really, (“participate in the divine nature”) already allows for a slight deviation from the Fathers’ mainly ontological exegesis.
    Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism are in fact already more ‘Western’ (“knowledge is needed first to love something” than Orthodoxy “love is required in order to get to know someone”) than the Fathers…

  22. fatherstephen Avatar

    Philip Jude,
    Your questions are quite legitimate. Where I would differ immediately is on the nature of Palestinian culture in the first century. The Romanticism of Protestants (who simply need there to be a non-Greek, non-Orthodox, non-Catholic first-century Christianity corrupted in some way which they have now rescued) ignores the plain historical facts determined by archaeology, history, textual studies, etc. Every work in the NT uses the LXX rather than Hebrew text of Scripture. Thus, apparently, St. Paul studied the OT in Greek at least as much, and probably more than in Hebrew. He was born in Tarsus. He was not a Palestinian. St. John’s gospel shows very little evidence of Palestinian thought (if I can use such a phrase). Perhaps the largest Jewish community, and by far the most influential intellectually at the time of the NT, was in Alexandria, not particularly in Jerusalem. It’s where the LXX comes from.

    I’m not arguing for a Platonic New Testament – I’m simply noting that it is a Greek New Testament and that Hellenistic culture, which dominated Palestine as much as anywhere else, (who do you think the Hellenists were? they are clearly a major part of the Jerusalem Church at the time of the 12 apostles – Acts 6:1), had a world-view and vocabulary that were “Platonic.” This is an area of understanding that has been purposely ignored by Protestant thinkers (especially Reformed) precisely because it supports the obvious continuity of the early Church and refutes so many of the nonsensical readings of history invented by Protestantism. They have a make-believe 1st century, populated by make-believe Jews (who think like Reformed theologians), who strangely wrote in Greek for unexplainable reasons, etc. The classic Protestant take on early Church history is as bogus as Mormonism – particularly in that it is an invented history solely for the purpose of discrediting historical Orthodox Christianity and advancing their modernist (all Protestantism is modernist from its inception) radicalism.

    That’s very polemical on my part – but I wanted to state the case as plainly and clearly as possible. The 500 year-old fiction of early Church History created by Protestantism needs to be put to rest.

    A last note on Platonism. It is very clear that the fathers do not import Platonism – they are its loudest critics. But they do not reject its idiom – they employ it as it had been employed from the very beginning. Many people overlook the fact that there was a backlash within Judaism in the 90’s A.D. primarily because of the destruction of Jerusalem and in reaction to the (perceived) rising threat of Christianity. That reaction is to take a giant step backwards from Hellenism. It’s there that the Masoretic Text seems to have taken its present form. There is something of a Palestinian retrenchment from that time forward. But it would be incorrect to read that back into the Christian beginnings. It is the Hellenistic character of Christianity that is rejected at Jamnia with a shoring up of Jewish boundaries against Hellenistic thought. It is Christianity that continued what had become the vocabulary of international Judaism of the period and extended that vocabulary into the conversion of the Gentiles and the conversion of Hellenism into Christian Byzantium.

    Fr. John Behr, Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, has been doing some lectures that touch on some of this (particularly on Scripture and the place of the LXX versus the Masoretic text). I hope to post one of his lectures soon on the blog.

  23. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    It is nonsensical to think you can love without knowledge. If you do not know something, you can neither love nor not love it, because you do not know it exists.

    A savage in the rain forest will not one day wake up loving Jesus Christ. No, first comes the missionary proclaiming the Gospel, or the angel bearing good news, or some such gladsome herald. “And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?”

    Rather than pitting love against knowledge, I would say that love is a form of knowledge, a way of knowing — the greatest, the finest, the sweetest. As Saint Augustine wrote in De Trinitate, “There is no knowing without loving, and no loving without knowing” (IX, 2, ii).

    Anyway, you did not really respond to what I said.

  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    In one sense, the three words could be used almost interchangeably. In their most precise usage, they differ. The fathers declared that the Eucharist is not an icon (as the iconoclasts claimed) but Christ’s body. Thus icon has a stronger sense of distinction between the visible and invisible (I like your use of these terms – it’s helpful). In the language of St. Theodore the Studite, an icon is a representation of the hypostasis (person) but not of the ousia (essence). It’s a useful thought, if we’re using careful, neo-Chalcedonian language. I agree that Door is better than Window.

    As to the work of grace in all of this, I’m not sure what to say (or think). The grace of God permeates all things and upholds all things in their existence. Everything is anything only by grace. I hesitate to want to say that “only by the grace and activity of the Spirit” in the sense that it might diminish the sense of the “natural” connection that exists in all of this. But nature is not opposed to grace, but exists only by grace. Schmemann would say that this connection (the world as symbol) is part of the how of its existence (my language not his).

  25. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    Thank you, Father. You have put some questions in my own head to rest and given juicy food for thought.

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I’m sure I’m going to get this wrong, I’m just thinking aloud a bit but does not the icon and the symbolic acts we take and the essence of symbol take their meaning and fullness from the Eucharist? That is to say, the incarnational reality of God and man coming together in communion? I’m getting a little of the linear time vs. eshcatological time confusion going on.

    There is so much more I can’t find the words for.

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m not sure that I would think of it that way. Certainly the Eucharist trumps all things. Other things even as symbols are not the Body and Blood of Christ – as Schmemann says, what is unique about the Eucharist is that it is the Body and Blood of Christ (rather than symbol – in the strong sense – of something else).

    Let’s use the Cross, for example. Every tree participates in the Cross and has some relationship as “symbol.” Certainly every cross participates in the one True Cross, which is both historical and eschatological. Many things prior to the Cross as history participated and pointed to the Cross (every tree though this was not known). C.S. Lewis would have said that the many pagan religions that had a veneration for various trees did so in anticipation of the Cross though they would not have known it. As Christians we recognize this in the adoption of the Christmas Tree, the Yule Log, the Birch trees of Pentecost, etc.

    The Eucharist is not sui generis, everything else being like it, but is sui generis in that in it Christ’s Body and Blood are made present. Does that make sense? We are treading on holy ground, but it is ground that has been tread too little of late.

  28. dinoship Avatar

    The knowledge through love vs. love due to knowledge debate is at the heart of Orthodoxy’s critique of Platonism and even of the Philioque, as well as most of modernist secular thinking, I am afraid a detailed response to that cannot be provided right this minute (Father Stephen has talked multiple times, in a sense), however, I do recall a very pertinent response by Father Stephen who once said that God can “never be known as an object”.
    To those who come to love Him though (without truly knowing Him yet), he grants true, ineffable knowledge of His
    self, beyond all words. This knowledge is ontological to the point of becoming (like St. Paul) “not I, but Christ”.

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    Words such as communion (koinonia), participation, all of St. John’s material on knowing God, make no sense outside of a somewhat Platonic world-view. The theory of knowledge, which seems to have a clear place in NT thought, is not much of a subject in the OT. There knowledge is largely relegated to words of vision (to “see” etc.).

    An example in the NT can be seen in the use of the mirror in St. Paul (“through a glass darkly”). There was not a theory of light reflecting and the eye seeing as we use today. Rather there is the notion of the image appearing in the mirror, and the “rays” of our eyes have a sort of participation with them in the mirror. St. Paul’s use of this metaphor is a use of a cultural “Platonism” to speak about our knowledge of God in Christ. It is this “cultural Platonism” that finds a place in Christian thought from the beginning. And it is refined and critiqued (particularly with the doctrine of creation ex nihilo) as Christian thought makes its way over the next number of centuries.

  30. sergieyes Avatar

    “The New Testament is replete with it (Hellenism)(and cannot be understood without knowledge of it). ” C.S.Lewis prepares us for the world system of Hellenism in his volume, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Canto) Paperback: 242 pages
    Publisher: Cambridge University Press (August 26, 1994)
    Language: English
    ISBN-10: 0521477352
    ISBN-13: 978-0521477352

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, as a young pre-Christian man I read extensively in Campbell’s Mythology series. Even then I found is evident disdain and dismissal of the Christian mythos odd in light of his evident scholarship into the obvious pre-cursors. Perhaps I was more Christian that I thought, but it was quite easy for me to see the fulfillment in Christ of all things that the myths pointed to. It became much clearer in his final volume “Creative Mythology” when he replaced the attempt to understand the cosmos by use of symbols (however incomplete) with the machination of the human mind as the highest authority. Such a notion was so at odds with the genuine or what seemed to be genuine appreciation for myth in the human soul.

    So your statement that all trees partake of the Cross resonates with me. Thank you.

  32. Andrew Avatar

    Reblogged this on sojourner and pilgrim and commented:

  33. PJ Avatar


    You write, “To those who come to love Him though (without truly knowing Him yet), he grants true, ineffable knowledge of His”

    You are hedging. Your original statement was much more radical, implying that love was possible without any knowledge whatsoever. This is utterly impossible and totally irrational. Now, using the qualified phrase “truly knowing,” you are scaling back your assertion.

    I’ll say again: Love is not distinct from knowledge. Knowledge is not distinct from love. Are you married? Does not your love of your wife spring from your knowledge of her virtues?

    Anyway, Scripture tells us that knowledge of God is innate to all people. “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.”

  34. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s not a point to argue so strongly. I would agree that loving/knowing are, or should be, a singular thing. But this is radical enough in itself, and probably in line with what Dinoship was driving at. It’s certainly distinct from the kind of knowledge we have towards an object. It is the kind of knowledge that we have through participation and communion. Indeed, both the knowing and the loving are descriptions of the communion itself. It is also joy unspeakable, eternal life and transfiguration.

    The verse from Romans, that things are clearly seen, refers, I think, to a different kind of knowledge (closer to what we have viz. objects). We have the information, such that we are without excuse. But the kind of knowledge that inherently carries love is not informational, it is communion.

  35. Brian Avatar

    Philip Jude,

    Correct me if I’m mistaken, but if I’m following you correctly I think what you are trying to say is essentially this:

    “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?”

    In other words, it is all well and good to talk about knowledge of God coming only through love, but one cannot come to know a person through love without first being introduced to them, which is to say, without at least first knowing WHO they are.

    Continuing in this line of thought, the Father testifies to the identity of the Son…

    …at His baptism: “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

    …and at His Transfiguration: “This is My beloved Son; hear ye Him.”

    And later the apostles, having first come to know Him (yet only gradually having come to recognize WHO He is – having seen His miracles, having witnessed His Resurrection and Ascension, having received the Holy Spirit, etc.), can say to the multitude, confused by the miracle they were witnessing (“Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born?), “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know…This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear.”

    Then there is Philip’s conversation with the Ethiopian eunuch:

    “Do you understand what you are reading?”
    “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

    And also Saul, having been struck down on the road to Damascus, asks, “Who are you Lord?” And the answer, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

    If this is what you mean I don’t think any Orthodox Christian would disagree.

    This same train of thought is what leads us to affirm that we would have no dogma to tell us who the true God is unless there were first those who came to know Him personally through the Person of His Son and by participation/communion in His eternal life through the gift of the Holy Spirit. As a purely practical matter (while by no means denying the providence of God in history), we would have far fewer of the dogmatic definitions we enjoy today if it were not for the faithful who knew God (personally, intimately) reacting to the falsehoods (heresies) being propagated about Him by essentially saying, “This is not the God we know.”

  36. Karen Avatar

    Brian and PJ, if God is Personal and by His Spirit, “blows where He wills,” and can come incognito on some level to people (for example, like Jesus after the Resurrection to the disciples on the Road to Emmaus), it seems to me we ought also to consider that there can be real experiential knowledge of God without the prior “rational knowledge about” that you posit. It is possible to encounter and thus really “know” someone personally on a certain level and in a particular context and have no idea of who they are in the fuller sense of knowing all about them. I guess one example would be the current reality shows on TV where the big boss of the company poses as a fellow worker to get a feel for what is going on, on the ground in his company. (The reverse is also true.)

    C.S. Lewis talks about the virtually universal sense of the “numinous” among people–the sense that the material world is not all there is, and that there is something “Other” out there (although in modern Western culture, this is largely trained out of people by the time they are adults–even to a great extent among professing Christians!). We are also aware of the Holy Spirit’s work in convicting the conscience of all people and demonstrating the truth of God’s Presence (without which no one would be convinced even by persuasive explanation and preaching, as St. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 2). I also have in mind John 16:7-10 (where Jesus promises the Holy Spirit who will convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment) and Romans 10:18-22 (where St. Paul alludes to the fact that this preaching of the truth/gospel has been going on all along for the Israelites, yet they have resisted). So, I don’t think this is a case of one kind of knowledge necessarily preceding the other (for us as adults), but of a continual interplay between the two.

    But I guess practically and spiritually speaking, I would prioritize the experiential over the rational. Without experiential knowledge, it seems to me rational knowledge is pretty useless. It is just words on a page until and unless we act upon it and begin to experience its reality as a way of life (and our willingness and ability to do so will depend to a large degree on our prior experience).

    As a psychology student in college, I studied human learning and development, particularly the work of Jean Piaget, which is extremely valuable because it was the first such work (in the modern era at least) based not on prior theory and conjecture–no matter how logical, but on actual observation of what humans *do* from early infancy on through maturation. Piaget’s observation was that experience (and plenty of it repeated over and over) definitely precedes conceptualization, and conceptualization is impossible even with experience until the brain is developmentally capable of it. Do we not consider that our baptized infants and young children have “real experience” of Christ? In fact, Christ held up their kind of faith as exemplary for us all, and yet of rational knowledge and understanding this category of human beings have little to none!

  37. Brian Avatar


    On the whole, I entirely agree as evidenced by previous comments I’ve made. However, I am not referring here to rational knowledge. I’m referring to personal knowledge, personal encounter, and personal communion, personal sharing in life. When it comes to God (or any other person for that matter) one must somehow be introduced personally – either by direct revelation or by someone who already knows Him. It is true that all human beings have a vague knowledge of Him by that sense of the “numinous” about which C.S. Lewis wrote. Those who truly know God in this sense recognize Him when they are introduced to Him personally.

    I, too, would strongly emphasize and give priority to the personal/experiential/participatory (what to call such a great mystery?) which has no limits over the rational which is by its very nature limited to the capacity of the human mind. Christian faith insists on it, for life in Christ is eternal primarily by reason of its “quality,” which is to say that eternal life is a KIND of life – the kind shared by the Holy Trinity.

    I was simply asking PJ (and also pointing out) that if this is what he is really trying to say – that WHO we know matters, and that we know God by personal introduction from those to whom He has chosen to reveal Himself – he would not be speaking contrary to Orthodox Christianity. The Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets who knew Him (“…through them Thou hast granted Thy peace unto the world.”), Jesus Christ being the Chief Cornerstone (who Himself knows the Father). We believe, for example, in Apostolic Succession and that the faith is delivered/handed down and received personally through communion – not by rational thought, not by Scripture in and of itself, not by dogmatic definitions, but by ‘introduction’ (as it were) to the Personal God, by immersion (baptism) into His death and life, by sharing His life in the Holy Spirit, the eternal life that is a mystery open to all – infants, the mentally retarded, the learned and the unlearned, even (thank God) ignorant adults like me!

  38. Karen Avatar

    Brian, good points. Thanks for the clarification.

  39. sergieyes Avatar

    Father Stephen: ” “numinous” about which C.S. Lewis wrote.” Lewis confirms he was inspired in this idea by Rudolph Otto.The Idea of the Holy :R. Otto (Author), John W. Harvey (Translator)Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; 2 edition (December 31, 1958)
    ISBN-10: 0195002105
    ISBN-13: 978-0195002102

  40. dinoship Avatar

    One of the more important points here, I believe is that, to fall into that type of spiritual pride (which is rife in western thinking) of mistaking our knowledge “about” (info, imagination, rationalisations, concepts, memories) as first hand knowledge “of” (Living Communion), is much easier than we think.

  41. Lina, Avatar

    I emailed a friend about my struggle with symbol and this is her reply. I thought I would post it with her permission.

    it actually made present what it represented

    ” yes!!!! YES!! That’s exactly what Jesus said when He said “Do this for the anamnesis of me”!!!!! Anamnesis means exactly that, to bring into the present the reality, the substance of something that it represents. In this case, since the bread and wine of the Eucharist represents the Body and Blood of Jesus, it could be translated “do this to make Me present, to bring Me here with you, right now.” So the Eucharist actually, in some wondrous, more-real-than-our-reality way, brings the reality of Jesus, His Body and Blood, to us in the Bread and the Wine. I’ve been teaching about this for years, ever since I looked anamnesis up in the dictionary at the back of my concordance and the Holy Spirit began to teach me about this thing of “actually making present what it represents.” Yes!! Jesus really IS present in the Bread and the Wine!! Glory!!!!! “

  42. fatherstephen Avatar

    Forgive me for not saying this. It is indeed one of the classical definitions of symbol in Orthodox understanding of the word. Your friend spoke well!

  43. Andrew Avatar


  44. Lina, Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, My friend enjoyed your comment. And then I asked her if the recital every year at Passover, of the Jewish people would also fall into this category. And she replied.

    Yes!! Read Deuteronomy 26:1-11. Verses 5-9 are an ancient “creed” in which people, many generations after Abraham, were to say “My father was a wandering Aramean…” and then (to be said by people many generations after Israel’s slavery in Egypt) “and the Egyptians treated us harshly….then we cried out to the Lord….and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand…..and has given us this land, a good land flowing with milk and honey.”

    This little liturgy, this “creed”, which the descendants of those wandering in the desert were instructed to say when they were established in the Promised Land (seen by faith by Moses while he spoke this deuteronomic sermon), is rooted in the same thing. Anamnesis. Stepping outside of time into the reality of Eternity, and celebrating their great festivals, their Holy days (remember that holy, both kadosh in Hebrew and hagios in Greek mean ‘set apart’—in this case, ‘set apart’ from normal time—not chronos, but kairos). I was soooo excited when I re-read these verses while going through Deuteronomy, and first realized that it is the same principle as the reality of the Eucharist, and that God has been inviting His people to step into Eternity with their words and thoughts all through the ages! What a wondrous life He brings us into—His own Life-beyond-space-and-time!!

  45. Karen Avatar

    Andrew, 🙂

  46. Andrew Avatar

    “……………………” 🙂

  47. sergieyes Avatar

    Lina states that she is very inspired by the jewish Kadish,and that is very appropriate. Some scholars suggest that the “Our Father” prayer of Jesus Christ,is his instruction on the Kaddish:
    Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba (Cong: Amein).
    May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified (`Cong: Amen.)
    b’al’ma di v’ra khir’utei
    in the world that He created as He willed.
    v’yam’likh mal’khutei b’chayeikhon uv’yomeikhon
    May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,
    uv’chayei d’khol beit yis’ra’eil
    and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel,
    ba’agala uviz’man kariv v’im’ru:
    swiftly and soon. Now say:
    (Mourners and Congregation:)
    Amein. Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varakh l’alam ul’al’mei al’maya
    (Amen. May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.)
    Yit’barakh v’yish’tabach v’yit’pa’ar v’yit’romam v’yit’nasei
    Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled,
    v’yit’hadar v’yit’aleh v’yit’halal sh’mei d’kud’sha
    mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One
    (Mourners and Congregation:)
    B’rikh hu.
    Blessed is He.
    l’eila min kol bir’khata v’shirata
    beyond any blessing and song,
    toosh’b’chatah v’nechematah, da’ameeran b’al’mah, v’eemru:
    praise and consolation that are uttered in the world. Now say:
    (Mourners and Congregation:)
    Y’hei sh’lama raba min sh’maya
    May there be abundant peace from Heaven
    v’chayim aleinu v’al kol yis’ra’eil v’im’ru
    and life upon us and upon all Israel. Now say:
    (Mourners and Congregation:)
    Oseh shalom bim’romav hu ya’aseh shalom
    He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace,
    aleinu v’al kol Yis’ra’eil v’im’ru
    upon us and upon all Israel. Now say:
    (Mourners and Congregation:)

  48. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


  49. Lina, Avatar

    Sometimes I think I need a seeing eye dog to guide me through these moments which I don’t recognize. How do we begin to realize that God is breaking into ‘our’ world? How do we look, where do we look? and etc.

  50. […] here is pleroma, a term common within Gnosticism. However, Fr Stephen Freeman has noted recently that “… in Christian usage it refers to a spiritual wholeness or completeness that is […]

  51. […] here is pleroma, a term common within Gnosticism. However, Fr. Stephen Freeman has noted recently that “in Christian usage it refers to a spiritual wholeness or completeness that is being […]

  52. […] For another good post about the meaning of a few terms from an Orthodox perspective. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

  53. […] (Fr. Stephen Freeman) Note that this is not only different than “mystery” in the common and modern sense, but that it’s not a “mystery” like a Gnostic secret disclosed only to the initiated cognoscenti. […]

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