Obstacles to Faith


My writing and thoughts often carry me to the “edges” – to the edge of unbelief and to the edge of the depths of belief. My instinct for these places is an instinct for the obstacles to faith. Why do some believe and others not? And what is the exact nature of belief and unbelief?

There is a form of belief familiar to everyone. It is simply the manner in which we see the world. We are not particularly aware of any effort required in this exercise. We open our eyes, look, and see what we see. This perception, however, can also be clouded by many things. For some, every simple perception of the world comes colored with a mist of fear and anxiety. Things are not only what they are seen to be, but are also seen to be threats. If you have never had this experience you are blessed.

I recall my first experience of a major city – New York in 1971. I was working as a street musician along with a friend. The city was amazing – a constant feast for the eyes and senses. I had seen nothing like it. A week or so after arriving, we were mugged at knife point. What we lost financially was insignificant. What I lost was the city I had first encountered. In its place was a hostile, dangerous environment in which every face was a potential enemy, every alley way a hiding place for the next disaster. We went home.

Of course this “perception” of the world is simply the fog of psychology. But it is worth remembering how important that fog can be in how we see.

There is a way of seeing that many would describe as “seeing things as they are.” We assume that how we see things is objective, real, accurate, normal, etc. All of these take for granted an agreement concerning our perceptions. It would also be readily accepted that inner dispositions and culturally agreed ideas might distort these perceptions. The racially-divided society of my Southern childhood contained a large array of false but generally accepted (by whites) distortions of the world. Those who began speaking about equality in the 1960’s sounded, at first, like people from another planet. It is little wonder that Martin Luther King, Jr., described his vision of a world in which race was not issue in terms of a “promised land.”

These questions of perception are crucial to an understanding of faith and overcoming obstacles. Faith is a means of perception. It is an “organ” of seeing and hearing. It is the “evidence of things not seen,” or, “the seeing of unseeable things.” To “see the unseeable,” is of a piece with to “know the Unknowable.” The things of God are not obvious or clear to a darkened heart.

Our modern version of things “as they are,” is simply things understood in a “secular” manner. For the most obvious thing to modern man is that his world is a great neutral zone. God (if there is a God) can choose to make Himself present in the world, but there is nothing about the world that is inherently connected to God. The world is just the world. He lives in a fog of unbelief.

With such an assumption underlying everything that appears, it is little wonder that the vision given by faith is such a stumbling block. To perceive the world as sacrament and wonder contradicts our culture’s commonly held view.

When someone says that they “believe” in God, I’m not always sure what they mean. It is entirely possible (and even often the case) that they mean something quite different than what I would mean by the same statement. There is the acceptance of God as a theoretical construct, a mental assent, even a trusting mental assent to the existence of a higher being who loves, creates and provides for creation. That trusting assent may have a significant amount of content: the “God of the Bible,” or the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” etc. In many cases (even most), however, trusting assent to the existence of such a God does not alter the shape or nature of creation itself: it remains the same neutral, secular world. This is the situation I have described as a “two-storey universe.”

There are many versions of such a God – from the so-called literalist version of the fundamentalists, to the gentle, politically-correct God of modern liberals. Some struggle with the name of this God, wondering whether “He” should be replaced by “He/She” or other English neologisms (in one graduate school I attended, certain professors would only accept papers written in conformity with a neologistic orthodoxy – and that was over 20 years ago).

But the content of the “superior being” in the two-storey universe is relatively beside the point. Such a God, regardless of content, is not the God and Father of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ: it is a lightly Christianized version of the ancient sky gods. And in the cultural perception of  modern, secularized nature, it is an endangered species. Few attacks on the Christian faith sound as silly as those of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Their inaccuracies and caricatures are rivaled only by the rants of the adherents whose god they despise.

But Christians would do well to listen to their critique – for the god they don’t believe in was taught them by someone. To say, “I believe in that god, only my reasons are very good,” is actually inadequate. What Dawkins, Hitchens and company reveal is an obstacle to faith. If the universe itself is the one they perceive – if it is truly inert, self-existing, self-referential and spiritually neutral, then the case against the God taught and made known in Jesus Christ is strong indeed. Positing a sky-god above and outside such a world is perhaps interesting, but it is not persuasive and, more to the point, not Christianity. David Bentley Hart has this to say about the Christian God:

To speak of “God” properly—in a way, that is, consonant with the teachings of orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Bahá’í, much of antique paganism, and so forth— is to speak of the one infinite ground of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.

God so understood is neither some particular thing posed over against the created universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a being, at least not in the way that a tree, a clock, or a god is; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are. He is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom all things live and move and have their being. He may be said to be “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of finite things, but also may be called “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity underlying all things.

To speak of “gods,” by contrast, is to speak only of a higher or more powerful or more splendid dimension of immanent reality. Any gods who might be out there do not transcend nature but belong to it. Their theogonies can be recounted— how they arose out of the primal night, or were born of other, more titanic progenitors, and so on —and in many cases their eventual demises foreseen. Each of them is a distinct being rather than “being itself,” and it is they who are dependent upon the universe for their existence rather than the reverse. Of such gods there may be an endless diversity, while of God there can be only one. Or, better, God is not merely one—not merely singular or unique—but is oneness as such, the sole act of being by which any finite thing exists and by which all things exist together.  From “God, Gods and Fairies,” First Things, June/July 2013

How do we perceive the “Ground of all being?” How do we perceive Him who is “beyond being?” For it is this God whom the fathers referenced in all of their writings.

The first and most important answer for Christians is that Jesus Christ is none other than the Word of the Father, the Logos of the Ground of Being, and that He has become man. In the words of St. John’s Gospel: “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (literally, “He has exegeted Him”). 

As Fr. Thomas Hopko has said on numerous occasions: “You cannot know God…but you have to know Him to know that.”

This utterly transcendent, yet truly incarnate God, also makes Himself known in the primary means of the sacraments and the life of the “community of union” (to use the phrase of St. Irenaeus). The God-Who-Cannot-Be-Known can only be known because He reveals Himself – He makes Himself known. He is not an object among objects, nor is He an idea among ideas.

The sacramental life should not be seen as discrete moments of grace dispensed by the Church, but rather as revelations of Divine Reality, gifts of the very Life of God, given to us in the means He has appointed. And the means is not arbitrary – it is itself revelatory of the relationship between the God-Who-Cannot-Be-Known and His creation.

The highly psychologized notion of “relationship” touted within much of modern Christianity is a deviation from what is established within the Scriptures and the historical life of the community of faith. It is a novelty – all too well-suited to an overly psychologized culture. In a world driven by the warring identities of 6 billion false-selves, one more relationship is simply not salvific. The false self does not have authentic relationship.

It should be obvious that we cannot perceive the true God in the manner of perception that dominates our cultural life. Faith is a means of perception that requires a change in the agent of perception. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The beginning of faith is a movement (which is always inherently a change) both away from our present perception and towards the God-Who-Cannot-Be-Known. It is always a movement towards authentic being.

This movement towards God is initiated in us by grace, by the power of God that draws us, that encourages us, that nurtures our longing for true existence. Dimitru Staniloae describes our response:

At the beginning this is only the simple will to believe and not to do something. So inevitably the first effort of our will in view of the good, can have only this object: to believe. As far as we are concerned, we can’t begin anywhere else, by some change for the good in our life, except to believe. And the one who wants to believe, arrives at the point where he can….

So before starting out on the.way of purification, it is necessary for man to strengthen his faith received at Baptism, by will, but since faith is a relationship of mind to God, it can’t be strengthened except by my beginning to think more often of Him, not in a theoretical way, as of a philosophical subject for study, but of Him on whom I depend for everything and Who can help me in my insufficiencies. But the thought of God is made real, or maintained by a short and frequent remembrance of Him, made with piety, with the feeling that we depend on Him. Such a thought concentrates our thoughts on God or on Jesus Christ, on what He has done for us, as the basis for the trust that He will help us now too (in Orthodox Spirituality, Kindle 2228-2233).

I am sometimes reminded of John Wesley’s famous dictum, “Do faith until you have faith.” This is not a matter of convincing ourselves of something, much less deluding ourselves. It is an action that risks, that tests a new perception. My own experience has been that of a willingness to trust (to some extent) what I can only just descry – at the very edge of vision.

This brings us back to the edges – where this article began. Although God is truly the Ground of Being, the only foundation of existence, our habit of perception acts as an obstacle for true perception. Our sight has to be drawn to the edges (even those immediately before us) where we see hints, even hints of hints, that there is a Reality that lies outside, within and beneath all that we see. That smallest perception sometimes comes with its own attendant joy, for it is Joy itself and Wonder. It is communion and union. It is purity of heart and love.

I was recently struck by this statement of the Elder Tadej of Serbia:

There are some that say that they are atheists, but there is no such thing as an atheist…. No such thing. Even the devil believes and trembles (cf. James 2:19), but he refuses to do good. There is no such thing as a person who does not believe in God, and there is no rational being on earth that does not long after life with all his heart. We will give anything to live eternally, and we all long after perfect love, love that never changes but lasts forever. God is life, He is love, peace, and joy. There are those who oppose Him, but they can do nothing to hurt Him. It is we who complicate our own lives with our negative thoughts  (Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, 1626-1630 Kindle Edition).


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.


129 responses to “Obstacles to Faith”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Illustration – Afton Dafoe “Edge of Existence”

  2. Dino Avatar

    I initially wondered if this magnificent article that appeared in email but wasn’t up on the site was “covert” for some reason!
    Now I see an even more magnificent one…

    I think the astuteness of those words of our tradition, make hearts leap joyously when reading them Father! – they do resonate like a word of Tradition spoken for the benefit of our time…

    I also really appreciate that fabulous long quote of David Bentley, and I guess ‘personal sense’ can be made of it when we remember the patristic words of those who lived that blessed union (Saint Symeon the New Theologian’s as well as Elder Aimilianos’ words come to mind here). In that state, one cannot differentiate between ‘I’ and ‘Christ’. “Being Himself” embraces the little Prodigal, and the Father is ‘all in all’ to him, (as He is for all -although not all people see this…)

    communion and union

    And I find it most remarkable how such a simple thing we call Nepsis (“constant watchfulness with mind in heart repeating the Jesus prayer”) more or less has the answer. It makes our Faith into “an organ” that alters the “shape and nature of creation itself”… Living in such a, (how can we word this…), ‘super cosmic state’, automatically makes the external impression of apparent calamities or blessings pale into insignificance in comparison. I am thinking of your 70’s New York story and similar ones of mine…

    As you and others have touched on before, the eschatological Kingdom is only to be found in the reality of the present moment, the moment that our enemy will try to cheat us out of, and Nepsis will firmly plant us back in. The Kingdom is also to be found first and foremost in the ‘place’ of the heart, the place that watchfulness returns us to. Those two (here and now) “locations” are what the devil would offer us all others instead of…

    Saint John of Kronstad was hugely admired by Saint Silouan the Athonite for walking the City -being mobed by crowds- and yet still not losing his -first and foremost- awareness of Christ in his heart and praying for the people as Christ did. But did not our Lord always, even in the midst of hostile crowds, provide us with that same example of walking the Earth but beeing frimly in the Father in Heaven when exclaiming: “I and the Father”, “My Father … and I Myself am working”, “For this is the will of my Father”, “my Father has given them to me”, “If you had really known me, you would know who my Father is” etc?

    May we allow God to transform us accordingly through our Father’s prayers.

  3. Fr Aidan Kimel Avatar

    Thank you, Fr Stephen, for this fine article. It is so easy to fall into the secular world view concerning the world. This is the worldview into which we are born and formed. It shapes us in so many ways.

    The curious thing about this secular worldview is that it was only made possible by the Christian doctrine of creation. If God has made the world from out of nothing, and if the world enjoys its own special kind of integrity, then it is possible to investigate the world on its own–hence the birth of modern science. But it’s one thing to temporarily “bracket” the Creator for purposes of scientific investigation, and it’s quite another thing to eliminate the Creator altogether (or to push him to the side, as in deism).

    The challenge now, as you have so brilliantly argued in your book and many blog articles, is to rediscover the radical meaning of the Christian God, who is both radically transcendent and radically immanent in the world he has made–your one storey universe.

    Your readers can find David Hart’s article here: http://goo.gl/wZnbJ.

    I had no idea you had been a street musician in New York.

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    A meandering speculation:

    I wonder, is the abyss experienced when we head out from the normal, settled but false world really an abyss? Is it maybe just a little trench that we can easily get past if we enter more fully into Christ?

    What was once the ‘edge’ often becomes a highly populated civilized place if one goes there often enough does it not?

    Three things keep me tethered to the unreality: fear and sensuousness and comfort

    Three things allow me to explore: the experience of love (human and divine) and humility (what little I have) and discomfort (large and small).

    I think the experience of a health crisis or potential health crises can be a bit like being mugged in the big city or it can be an opportunity to burst the bonds that we so easily allow to imprison us.

    We are layered beings, a unity of body and soul, seen and unseen to be sure but many, many layers. Some of the layers are created by sin, others are created by God. At the heart (much like an artichoke) is the sweetness of everlasting communion with our Lord. It is amazing to me how easy it is to settle for so much less.

    The quest to get through the sin and the phenomena of the senses and emotions takes up most of our existence even if we do not know God. Some, just give in and are subsumed by the darkness and how sad that is.

    Even Dawkins and Hitchens and others are (whether they know it our not) are responding to the call to come to the truth. The fact that they are attacking a false God is not so worrisome as the fact that so many purport to believe in that false god and immerse themselves in the darkness of idolatry (of course we all do that to some degree don’t we).

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Fr. Aidan, more very short New York career is now part of legend… We did manage to win a competition at the Gaslight on MacDougal St., where Dylan and so many others played. It was the summer of ’71. We “crashed” each night wherever we could find someone to put us up. Most days we played places for beer and food. Apparently God had other plans…

  6. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    I wish I could write that this post was as edifying to me as all your other posts have been, but I got hung up on your New York tale. I’m *from* NYC. Imagine living with that fear and watchfulness every single day of your life. (Hmmm…if I could just apply my city skills to my spiritual life…)

  7. Mary Lanser Avatar

    When I first began working with Father Hal many years ago, he began by asking me “What is Faith?” and over a period of a couple of months, I finally arrived at the answer that he was looking for which was that “Faith is a creature’s share in the divine life.”

    I think I will cap your article with that and then let what you’ve said unfold from there.

    Excellent word here Father: “Faith is a means of perception that requires a change in the agent of perception. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The beginning of faith is a movement (which is always inherently a change) both away from our present perception and towards the God-Who-Cannot-Be-Known. It is always a movement towards authentic being.”

    I spent my late teens roaming the streets of NYC and exploring the ins and outs of things with abandon. The last time I traveled to the city with my son, then a late teen himself, I watched his eyes grow big with anticipation, and I hid my own vision from him of a cramped and dirty-grey place, a poor caricature of its former glory.


  8. Anna Avatar

    Father, bless!

    A couple of thoughts:

    “the gentle, politically-correct God of modern liberals” — that’s very well said! Many people don’t like to think that God would challenge their belief system.

    “But the content of the “superior being” in the two-storey universe is relatively beside the point. Such a God, regardless of content, is not the God and Father of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ: it is a lightly Christianized version of the ancient sky gods.” — This is something very interesting to consider and not very obvious, at least not at first. There are many idolaters among us! They don’t fashion false gods as material idols to be worshipped, but imagine (create fictitious mental images of) their false gods in their mind. They are no less idolatrous than those who use gold and such for the fictitious images they worship. Who’s the idolater now? can ask the venerators of holy icons. (This probably asks for some context if someone is not familiar with the icon “controversy”, which I promise to give if necessary.)

  9. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Great article, Fr. Stephen. The quote by Hart is especially appreciated. I’m also curious what instrument you played in your street band of old…if you care to share.

    I would appreciate any clarification you might offer on this part of your article:

    “The highly psychologized notion of “relationship” touted within much of modern Christianity is a deviation from what is established within the Scriptures and the historical life of the community of faith. It is a novelty – all too well-suited to an overly psychologized culture.”

    Certainly “relationship” with God is not simply one more relationship among our many human relationships – but I don’t quite understand what you mean by a “psychologized” notion of relationship, etc. Thanks.

  10. John - Romania Avatar

    I didn’t quite know where to put this comment, but…

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for sharing some of your thoughts and feelings via this blog. I am glad I found answers for some of the questions about Orthodoxy that troubled me, and I am pleased with them. It was quite reassuring. It was quite amazing for me to see that Orthodoxy is the same, regardless of the believer’s language, geographical position, culture. Nice to know Orthodox Christians are not alone on this Earth in these times, wherever they are…

    I’m really glad, thankful, that you started this blog.

    May God bless you!

    PS: I also appreciate the Share buttons in the bottom of the page. Quite useful.

  11. Byron Gaist Avatar
    Byron Gaist

    Another great post from Fr Stephen!

    Fr Stephen writes “To perceive the world as sacrament and wonder contradicts our culture’s commonly held view.” I’m not sure this is entirely correct. As David Bentley Hart (another beautiful feather in Orthodox Christianity’s cap) suggests in the quote, God is perceived as the infinite ground of being not only by Christianity; and even in our secular culture, people often claim to be ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’, by which usually some measure of perception of the wonder and sacrament of the universe is implied.

    A difficulty which arises for me, is not so much in perceiving the sacramental wonder of the world, but in linking that wonder specifically to Christ. This post sort of addresses that too, with the quote from D. Staniloae and John Wesley, and the general enjoinder to use faith to test new perceptions; but if, like myself, one is constantly wavering on the edge of faith, it is very hard to be genuinely persuaded that behind the wonder there are Three Persons, specific Persons with their own ways of manifestation. It’s like trying to view an elephant when your face is pressed into its belly, or perhaps like trying to view a whale which has swallowed you whole…

  12. Dino Avatar

    while waiting for Father’s answer my instant reaction would be simply that “an overly psychologized culture” is related to the secular worldview, with its weakness to see in our neigbour the eschatological man/woman.

    Yes, other worldviews might have that depth, they might even provide the methods (eg: like the “here & now” living), however, they have a different ‘engine’, as the motives are not those that a personal relationship -as we see in the Christian Truth. For example even when we talk of ‘energies’ (in Christianity) these are never impersonal, they are Him, the God who is relational/Hypostatic.

  13. Jay Avatar

    > To speak of “gods,” by contrast, is to speak only of a higher or more powerful or more splendid dimension of immanent reality. Any gods who might be out there do not transcend nature but belong to it.

    But isn’t that exactly what Christianity does when it invokes the existence of Satan, angels and demons? Now we’re back to the idea of supernatural created beings.

    I appreciate that all this beautiful language about God’s transcendence renders the atheist’s objection to God’s existence inert, but it seems all we’ve done is extend the problem one step below and now the atheist can object to the existence of these other supernatural beings that are claimed to exist. To the atheist, Christianity still sounds like the Greek Pantheon, just with a different hierarchy.

    I would love to hear Fr. Stephen’s opinion on this matter.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mary B.
    I wrote a series of articles starting last June on the false self, etc. The lede in the first article:

    At some point early in life, we begin to construct a narrative. Composed of memory and emotion, complete with critical commentary, this narrative becomes what we consider to be the self. This narrative may be revised and reinterpreted any number of times across a lifetime. The great tragedy, from a Christian point-of-view, is that this carefully constructed and defended story is not the true self. At best, it could be termed the ego, but even that grants it a privilege to which it is not entitled. The true self is quite distinct. Distinguishing between the two is one of the most essential tasks of the spiritual life. It is also a task almost completely lost within modern Christian awareness.

    Another piece within that series addressed “Evangelism and the Ego.”

    What most people identify as their self, is not, in Orthodox understanding, the self at all, (or just barely). I note that those with a psychology background sometimes object to how the word “ego” is used here, identifying it with the false self. In popular usage of the word “ego,” it is a very accurate match. I have used it in a manner common to a number of contemporary Orthodox writers.

    But, putting that aside, I have noted that Christ did not come to underwrite the project of the false self (ego). Most of what people mean when they say “relationship,” is simply one more aspect of that project.

    Instead, salvation includes the discovery of the true self. We must lose the false self in order to gain the true self. Losing the false self doesn’t mean simply trying to teach the false self to “behave.” This is the psychological salvation that marks most of contemporary Christianity. This is the false self that comes to confession and says, “But I’m doing better.” We do not need to learn how to behave – that is mere morality – something that non-believers engage in all the time. “Jesus did not die to make bad men good…”

    Instead, the true self that is birth in us by grace, should become increasingly the seat of our existence. We cannot reform the false self and make it behave like the true self. This is the error that most well-intentioned people, without guidance, fall into. They read books on spirituality, or even have an ill-trained spiritual father, and attempt to “act like” what they read. But with each failure or challenge, they “react” – sometimes with anger or frustration, etc. This reaction is simply the false self that has been caught out again.

    Christ did not die to underwrite the narrative of my life. He is not redeeming my “story.” Our utter fascination with ourselves (we now have more pictures of ourselves, taken by ourselves, than at any time in history – we’re very silly) spills over into a popular Christianity that is itself being daily reconstructed to suit the tastes, desires and requirements of the culture. It is an “ego-driven” version of Christianity. Its memory will cease from off the earth.

    What the Persons of the Trinity have towards one another, can be termed “relation” or “relationship.” But that reality, is the proper meaning of the term for Christian usage. It is not a psychologized notion. “I wonder what the Father is thinking about today? I’ll check his status…” “How does the Spirit feel about me…?” The entire anthropomorphized atonement story (“wrath” etc) is chock full of these silly ideas about God – very much part of the sky-god delusion. People speak of their relationship with God in these terms that ultimately only inflate the ego’s sense of its own importance (and since it is a fiction – it’s a dangerous importance).

    What you have with the Eucharist when you eat it (and I don’t mean what you think about when you eat it) – but what you have with the Eucharist – what your tongue and your stomach, your blood, etc., has with the Eucharist – this is closer to “relationship” than anything the ego conjures up. It’s one of the many reasons God gives us the sacraments…but that would be another article.

  15. Fr Aidan Kimel Avatar

    You raise an interesting point, Jay. The Christian claim regarding the existence of angelic beings is analogous to the pagan claim regarding the existence of the gods or fairies. Angels are of such a kind that their existence cannot be scientifically confirmed or disconfirmed, at least not by any means that presently exists (though perhaps such a means might be discovered in the future). So I suppose that Christians can be accused of being superstitious, though the leprechaun who lives out in my woods might disagree. I’ll ask him if I ever catch him. 🙂

    But the Christian understanding of God poses a far more radical problem, both for the atheist and for us, for the reasons cited by Hart and Fr Stephen. We are not talking about a being that belongs to the created order. We are not talking about a being who can be conceived. We are not talking about a being whose existence can be empirically confirmed or disconfirmed by any means we might devise. We are not talking about a being. We are talking about the transcendent source of all beings.

    If the atheist wishes to deny the existence of angels on the same grounds that he denies the existence of Thor or Titania, he is free to do so. But he may not legitimately deny the existence of the God of the gospel for the same reasons. God is not a god. God is not a supernatural being.

  16. Mourad habib Avatar

    27 June 2013

    Dear Father Stephen;
    I can’t thank you enough for your enlightening blogs, they mirroring the fathers writings, showing us the way of holiness and perfection.
    I got to know first about your blogs from church friends who happen to be your relations as well (john and family) and I also can’t thank them enough that they showed me this treasure.
    I want your blessings and please remember me in your prayers

    Yours sincerely,
    Mourad Habib

  17. PJ Avatar


    “But isn’t that exactly what Christianity does when it invokes the existence of Satan, angels and demons? Now we’re back to the idea of supernatural created beings.”

    First, the one called “Satan” or the “devil” is an angelic person, and demons are simply angels who have abandoned their proper function, which is the service and praise of God.

    Second, the correct Christian distinction is not nature/supernature, but created/uncreated. Angels are sometimes called “supernatural,” in that they transcend “nature” (that is, material reality), but they are ultimately just creatures.

    It seems eminently reasonable that there should exist disembodied intellects, just as there are bodies without intellects and embodied intellects.

    “To the atheist, Christianity still sounds like the Greek Pantheon, just with a different hierarchy.”

    The difference between Zeus and the God of Christianity is evident. God is not part of the angelic hierarchy. He is not part of the “great chain of being.” He is the Being in which the chain exists.

    Anyway, the Greeks didn’t have it all wrong.


    “Faith is a means of perception. It is an “organ” of seeing and hearing. It is the “evidence of things not seen,” or, “the seeing of unseeable things.””

    It seems to me that faith is a gift of knowledge, trust, and love given to us by God. As St. Paul wrote, faith is itself the evidence of things unseen. We do not “use” faith to recognize God. Rather, the presence of faith in our hearts is itself the recognition of God. Belief is an action on the part of man; faith is a treasure bestowed freely by God alone.

    Thus the importance of grace. You ask why some have faith and others do not. What else could it be but grace, and the lack thereof? But then comes the question: Why grace to some and not others? Or, if grace be to all, why do some respond, yet others do not? And to those who do not respond, why is “more” grace not given? Could it be that God gives himself exactly as he should, to whom he should, when he should, in the manner that he should, in accordance with his love and wisdom?

    To ask why God dispenses this supreme gift — the gift of the love of God in the Holy Spirit, which is shed abroad in our hearts — in a manner seemingly arbitrary and capricious is to ask why he chose Jacob instead of Esau.

    “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

    Or again, even more boldly and perplexingly, St. Paul writes:

    “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion,b but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

    You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”

    What seems utterly capricious is actually the wonderful working-out of the good will of the perfectly merciful, perfectly loving, perfectly just Lord of All — the One who is, as you say, utterly beyond anything we can say or imagine, so much so as to be called “super-essential” and “beyond being.” This is not to deny the will of man. But the will of God is qualitatively, rather than quantitatively, different than the will of man.

    It seems to me that we can only say with Dame Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

  18. Mary Lanser Avatar

    How does one test the spirit of the true self born of grace?

  19. PJ Avatar


    “The entire anthropomorphized atonement story (“wrath” etc) is chock full of these silly ideas about God – very much part of the sky-god delusion.”

    This is unfair. Christians believe that God capable of righteous anger against that which is wicked is because they believe that He is a person – or, as it may be, a communion of persons — who loves and cares for the world and those in it. Of course, we are using human language, and it has its limits. God does not “get angry” like we do. He is not consumed by passion. We are definitely in the realm of analogy.

    Nonetheless, it seems to me that you cannot absolutely take away God’s “wrath” without taking away his love. We have to be very careful when we speak of God as “beyond being,” or the “ground of being,” to avoid the cold Tillichian/Bultmannian dead-end of an impersonal, abstract, distant “God-beyond-God,” who makes the God of the deists look paternal and affectionate.

    God’s love is fiery. You can’t read the Old Testament — even in light of the New — without coming away with this understanding. Unless you want to outright deny large swathes of the text. I worry, lest we wander in crypto-Marcionism, trading the living and active God of Scripture — who loves that which is holy and consumes (or, at very least, purifies) that which is evil — for the diffusive, ahistorical, utterly immovable and impassionate Good of the Neoplatonists.

  20. PJ Avatar


    I don’t know if you’re responding to me. But if so, I don’t know what you mean by “test the spirit of the true self born of grace.”

  21. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Our paths crossed. I should have been more clear. I was asking Father how one tests the spirit of the true self born of grace, meaning how do we know that we are dealing with the true self and not just another false one, born of self-will?


  22. PJ Avatar

    Sometimes it seems that the more authentic we strive to be, the less authentic we actually become.

  23. drewster2000 Avatar


    I see that hand and I will meander with you for a bit.

    “Three things keep me tethered to the unreality: fear and sensuousness and comfort”

    I like this list but feel compelled to tweak it. From what you’ve told of your life, there have been times that God has taken away things that you dearly loved. In keeping with this thought, I posit that if He took away the things you cling to in unreality (like sensuousness and comfort), there would be nothing left to fear. Right? And then you’d likely be off and running.

    But I also propose that He allows compelling things to exist in the “un” reality so that we actually choose Him and didn’t just come to His side by default, because there really was no other choice.

    I think your list isn’t far from the mark but it is also somehow necessary for the time being. The fear and comfort and sensuousness form the edges (using your metaphors) which you are asked to cross daily. And yes, as you learn to cross a particular one, it soon turns into common ground for you and another “edge” then springs up.

    In my mind those who have become spiritual giants like the saints are those who’ve learned to go leaping over this ground so that the edges are almost immediately turned into common ground. But that’s pure speculation on my part. I’ve been nowhere close to there. And strangely I have mixed feelings about that view: on the one hand it’s wonderful that some of our race have achieved such a state, but on the other hand it makes me feel very much left behind. I then feel some comfort in the thought that they too like St. Paul had a thorn in the flesh that kept them humble, perhaps an “edge” that they struggled to make common all their lives. If so then I’m in good company.

    Thanks for your meander. (grin)

  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    No. I do not accept the crypto-Calvinist interpretation of the Romans passage. God desires that all men be saved. He pours out His grace on all. We respond in various ways, also a mystery, but someone’s failure to accept this is not the working of grace – this is condemned by the Council of Dositheus. It’s not in the realm of possibility for an Orthodox priest to accept this. The mystery remains – but our failure or refusal is never the “will” of God. All things shall indeed be well because the mercy and patience of God is without limit or measure. As for “justice” – I have no idea what it means.

    Mary L.
    Now that is an extremely good question!

    It certainly has characteristics that mark its reality:

    It is quiet rather than noisy, intuitive rather than deductive, lives entirely in the present, and is, at every moment, accepting of the reality God gives in that moment. Moreover, it does not seek to distance or dominate anything or anyone by labeling…. It knows no fear, experiences no desire, and never finds the need to defend or justify itself. It never seeks to impose itself. It is patient and undemanding.

    These are characteristics of the heart given in Archm. Meletios Webber’s Bread and Water, Wine and Oil. It could be expanded. Frankly, it’s a little hard to fake. But, even so, a good spiritual father who knows and understands these things is also quite useful. Over the years, I’ve noticed that false spirituality is not only false – it’s also rather weird. I am equating the heart and the true self – for they are synonymous for the purposes of this conversation.

    To dwell in the true self is a very difficult thing. It is interesting, because, unlike the false self, the true self is not a construct. It is not a project on which we are working. It is there for the living and yet we don’t. If there is a “project” it is to quit living somewhere else. It is to come home. It is to enter the Kingdom.

    A short aside, apropos of my rabbit-trailed mind: We never “build the Kingdom” (in the heart or on earth, etc.). The language of “building up the Kingdom of God” is 19th century Fabian Socialist rhetoric – among the great delusions of the modern age.

  25. Lou. Avatar

    Father Stephen:

    You have at times alluded to AA as demonstrating an authentic spirituality. Could you describe how that program avoids some delusion at work in our culture and in our hearts, or how its practice falls short of Orthodox practice? I am not looking for criticism — nor would I expect such from you — but for a glimpse of true self and G-d in action.


  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Drewster, I doubt that I am different that others in this regard: If we give our struggles over to Him and allow them to be transformed, that is part of fulfilling our role as sacramental beings. There will always be struggles. If I read the fathers correctly, the need to offer up “thine own of thine own…” never ends, it just becomes more sanctified.

    When we refuse to offer up all of our life, it is then that we begin the descent into non-being because our life is always contingent on God’s grace and mercy. He, apparently, never allows us to complete the extinction no matter how hard we try.

    I can relate to Job a little. I lost a wife and nearly lost my son. God in His mercy gave me a new wife who brings lots of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren with her and restored my son to me. A plethora of human riches which I am still learning to accept into my life.


    Mary, I would say that we never really get to the full purity of our actual selves in this life, only in the world to come. So, we test it by continuing to live a life of repentance continuing to go deeper and never settling with where we are. Those pesky layers you know. Actually, where ever we are is always a mixture of the false self and the true. Salvation is not about linear advancement to somewhere better. Salvation seems to be about always allowing God to purify us here and now.

    Thus when I say “I love my wife” it is not with the purity of the love that Jesus Christ has or calls us to. There is selfishness in my statement, need and desire: none of which are pure, noble or part of my real self. Yet, there is also the joyous thanksgiving for her just as her and the kenotic offering of myself for her good, lifting her up to God in prayer and in service so that she might be purified. We are each part of the others salvation which means we also bear one another’s burdens of selfishness and sin and wounds even when we don’t want to; even when we are lazy and irritated.

  27. Dino Avatar

    the classic answer of the majority of traditional Orthodox to:

    To ask why God dispenses this supreme gift — the gift of the love of God in the Holy Spirit, which is shed abroad in our hearts — in a manner seemingly arbitrary and capricious is to ask why he chose Jacob instead of Esau.

    would simply be: ‘Philotimo’ (literally: Love of honourable reaction)
    It is a word that does not exist in English but is closely related to what our Lord advises when he says we must “become like children”.
    The main point is that God’s knowledge of our gracious response, our good-willed reaction makes us ‘get what we actually desire/deserve’, so that we become “for the potter” the lump of clay that responds better to His hands in order to become a vessel for honorable rather than for dishonorable use. There is therefore a mixture of God’s will (first and foremost, but we already know that is “for all to be saved”) and ours (secondly)

  28. Dino Avatar

    PJ, sorry, I wanted the last sentence to appear like this:
    There is therefore a mixture of God’s will (first and foremost, but WE ALREADY KNOW that, it is “for all to be saved”) and ours (secondly)

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think AA is authentic because it “works.” It doesn’t promise to get you to heaven, or turn you into the image of Christ, just keep you sober. There are many things under the heading of “character defects” etc. that push an individual towards the true self in AA. There is certainly much that is lacking – AA is not Orthodoxy – or even Christianity. But as far as it goes, it goes in the right direction. If someone is an addict, I do not hesitate to direct them to a 12-step program. They’ll need more than that – but without it – anything else is most likely to fail.

    I have been impressed a the ability of AA (precisely because it focuses of “what works” – the title of the 3rd chapter (?) in the Big Book) to keep smashing various false images and narratives of the self – all of which conspire to keep you drunk. The sober self is a very good start on the spiritual journey.

  30. drewster2000 Avatar


    Yes of course, you are no different than anyone else. You and I were simply meandering about one’s life and struggles, things that we all struggle with.

  31. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes. Yes. Of course. God is indeed “fiery,” but the analogy-God is frequently not worthy of worship. It’s not because He is Person that we say these things (the angry wrathful punishing God) – it’s because there’s a problem with us (idolatry) that we say these things. Our false selves create a false god and the party continues.

    Why not allow the “fiery” God to burn away these false images? Why defend the wrath of God (humanly understood) so doggedly? What’s at stake? Yes He loves and Yes He saves. And sometimes His salvation almost kills me. But His “wrath” is pure and righteous altogether – which, frankly, is not like any wrath I’ve ever seen – so that I don’t think the word “wrath” is necessarily all that helpful or precious. I respect the word because it is in Scripture – but I have to let it have the full range of its proper apophatic meaning for it to be useful at all.

    No one who prays the Orthodox liturgy doubts the fiery character of God. We meditate on it. Before receiving communion each Sunday I repeat this traditional prayer:

    Behold: I draw near to the divine Communion. Burn me not as I partake, O Creator, For Thou art a Fire which burns the unworthy. Rather, cleanse me of all defilement…Be awed, O man, when you see the deifying Blood! It is a fire which burns the unworthy! The Divine Body both deifies and and nourishes me. It deifies the spirit and wondrously nourishes the mind!

    Indeed, God is fire is one of the most frequent devotional images within the preparation for communion. I was once told that a priest standing at the altar stands in the fiery furnace. I believe it to be true.

    The fathers say that people are at various places in the path to salvation. For the simple or beginners, they acknowledge that fear of hell is a motivation for repentance – but they quickly note that it is only for that use. My own observation is that on this side of the various hideous distortions preached by a corrupted Christianity, this imagery has not only lost most of its usefulness (for that was only ever its reason for use), but has become positively damaging in a variety of ways. I feel no particular historical conservatism that drives me to preserve it for the sake of nostalgia.

    The gospel requires that we preach wisely. Threats of eternal hell-fire and Divine retribution just don’t seem to be effective any more. Therefore I don’t use it and I oppose it use in general because it damages the preaching of the gospel and knowledge of the true God. I’m not certain it ever did all that much good.

  32. Mary Lanser Avatar

    I wonder if threats of hell-fire ever were really effective. It seems to me that people engage the “insurance” model of faith even if they don’t believe in hell or purgation. It seems to me that hell-fire has much more impact upon those who believe and fear the wounding of the Beloved, and think that their sin is worthy of more than a little bit of refining fire and brimstone as you say.

    I have to admit that I am fascinated by a God who is said to have hardened Pharaoh’s heart. That is a puzzlement that I won’t brush aside or ignore. Not that I want a punishing, vengeful or game-playing God in my life but because I am actually and truly bemused by thoughts of how that could be true…and more even how that could relate to things in the New Testament such as the story of Judas, a seemingly necessary evil, and to Paul’s letter where he says that God works his wonders in our weakness…Why not just heal us instead of using us as heard-hearted poster girls and boys?

    At any rate it is an interesting question and I don’t feel manipulated or frightened or punished by any of the answers that I find in Scripture or in some of the Fathers concerning other possible answers. Sometimes I think I am stupid for thinking that if it’s God’s way, as it seems to be with Scripture in any event, then it’s all right by me…I am not much of a theologian I suppose.


  33. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Oooops I meant hard hearted in that last note Father…can you fix it?

  34. PJ Avatar


    No, not crypto-Calvinist. Augustinian? Yes. Thomistic? Yes. Plus a bit of mystical awe and wonder, fear and trembling. Squarely within the mainstream of the ancient catholic faith; far short of Protestant heresy.

    I also know that God gives grace to all (so do Calvinists, incidentally), and wishes all to be saved. Yet I also know that those who find salvation do so only because of the grace of God.

    Thus my question: “If grace be to all, why do some respond, yet others do not? And to those who do not respond, why is “more” grace not given? Could it be that God gives himself exactly as he should, to whom he should, when he should, in the manner that he should, in accordance with his love and wisdom?”

    I don’t know the answer. Ultimately, St. Paul himself throws up his hands! “O the wisdom, etc.” An intriguing but insoluble paradox which is ultimately best approached in prayer — if at all. We know that we are hopelessly lost apart from the love of God. Even our faith is a gift from him who gives all things (Eph. 2:8-9).

    As we pray in the liturgy: “You are glorified in the assembly of your Holy Ones, for in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts.”

    “Why not allow the “fiery” God to burn away these false images? Why defend the wrath of God (humanly understood) so doggedly? What’s at stake?”

    What’s at stake, many would say (and I must concur with them in part) is the integrity and coherence of Scripture. The God of the Bible is wonderful, yes, but terrible. “Wrath” is an analogy — yet an analogy without any similarity is not an analogy, is it?

    Unless we are to to engage in crypto-Marcionism (I see your crypto-Calvinism and raise you… 😉 ), then we must admit that we worship a God of mighty and sometimes fearful works, a God who has destroyed cities and shattered armies and controlled the fates of whole empires. In the pages of the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, he executes judgment on evil and those who oppose Israel. I know, I know, Jesus said, “You know not what spirit you are of…” But that can’t be used to cancel out the countless incidents recorded in the Old Testament.

    I don’t see how we can deny this … unless we’re ready to ignore nearly all of the Old Testament, and much of the New. I am uncomfortable with parts of the OT. What modern person isn’t, when he’s being honest? Yet I’m more uncomfortable with ignoring Holy Writ, which makes it clear that God is not to be trifled with. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” As far as I can tell, this is, with few exceptions, the mind of the fathers. If it was good enough for Chrysostom and Gregory the Great, why isn’t it good enough for us?

    Surely, you can understand these worries. They’re not the hobgoblins of a small, fearful mind.

  35. PJ Avatar

    “for that was only ever its reason for use”

    I’m surprised by this statement, Father, especially from a magnanimous and understanding person like yourself. It is incredibly cynical. What’s more, it maligns the characters of many godly priests and bishops — past and present — whose only desire was/is the safety of the immortal souls of their sheep.

    Many preach the justice of God, as well as the terrors of hell, for one simple reason: it is what they read in the Bible. They don’t have access or opportunity to study Isaac of Syria or other great mystics who soar into the mists of God’s love. They read the Word, and they base their theology off its plain meaning. Can we really hold this against them? Especially when they don’t sound so different than many of the men we call church fathers?

  36. drewster2000 Avatar


    You’re sounding Protestant all of a sudden. Surely you understand what Fr. Stephen’s trying to say. You don’t threaten a boy with hellfire when you want him to clean his room – especially when love and kindness will do the job much more easily and with much less fallout most of the time – and especially not when he’s already gotten used to those threats.

  37. Mary Lanser Avatar


    “It is quiet rather than noisy, intuitive rather than deductive, lives entirely in the present, and is, at every moment, accepting of the reality God gives in that moment. Moreover, it does not seek to distance or dominate anything or anyone by labeling…. It knows no fear, experiences no desire, and never finds the need to defend or justify itself. It never seeks to impose itself. It is patient and undemanding.”

    That is one of the best short responses to that question that I’ve seen.

    Father Hal told me years ago when I first asked that question that we often do not know if we are being the person that God’s wishes of us…we may not know much at all till we stand before Him face to face, and that we generally don’t know if we are making room enough inside for the Indwelling to work, and that we should not be wasting time seeking the answers to such things.

    I’ve asked the question since then and he’s given me responses similar to the one above, in bits and pieces depending on the context, but the one you gave here is all quite nicely put together in one moment…and can be expanded …Mostly when I ask now it is rhetorical in some sense but then I keep looking to see what others are thinking or know or have heard or believe. It’s nice to think about such things now and then.


  38. Dino Avatar

    those “godly priests and bishops — past and present — whose only desire was/is the safety of the immortal souls of their sheep”, if they did have some experience of God and the tiniest of discernment would use those words to produce that outcome (repentance) and no other. Do you not agree? Would they (as the slanderer does) use the words to slander God knowing that their audience would have that particular reaction?

    One might, with great sadness and kindness, say to an unrepentant individual words on ‘hell-fire’, which when written sound far cruder than they actually were, and dependant on one’s upbringing (I know many people like this from Greece), the effect of those words is benign, producing compunction and contrition. But in the West it is those words that have been used by many egotistic preachers to the perdition and revolt of their audience.

    Mary Lanser
    Patristic understanding consistently takes the (clearly) anthropomorphic expression “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” as:
    “God allowed Pharaoh’s heart to harden according to Pharaoh’s will – not God’s”

  39. PJ Avatar

    I don’t want to “threaten” anyone, Drewster. I have absolutely no desire for fire and brimstone craziness, a la Jonathan Edwards (or even John Chrysostom — on his bad days!).

    But I find it dishonest and uncharitable to obfuscate on the doctrine of hell. It is a tragic and terrible reality that should be clearly and not irregularly enunciated within the Church, lest we grow complacent about our sinfulness and presumptuous about God’s mercy.

    I really don’t think this is “Protestant.” It’s biblical, apostolic, patristic, medieval, etc.

  40. fatherstephen Avatar

    That’s not in the least cynical. Just as hell is ultimately curative (for “God takes no delight in the death of sinners”) rather than retributive – (“how much hell would someone have to endure in order to have paid for their sins (retribution)? If the answer is ‘eternity’ then the conversation has simply become absurd”) so too the preaching of hell can only be pedagogical or for the sake of salvation – which is all I said.

    Just because someone “read something in the Bible” doesn’t give them the license to preach. To preach, there is the need for understanding. They don’t have to have read St. Isaac to perceive the love of God. There are plenty of simple souls who preached love – because they found that in the Scriptures as well. I think we frequently find in the Scriptures what is already in our heart. I have rarely heard hellfire preached by the kind – and I’ve been at this a long, long time.

    And there are others who now not only preach hell, but preach it as necessity, “required by God’s justice,” etc. They are in delusion. I’m sorry, but they are. This is simply error – and certainly not the Orthodox faith.

    You make it sound like I’m being mean and judging the poor simple souls who just did their best to preach what they found in the book. Should we not pity the generations of children whose innocent souls were tormented by the fear of hell and a God who looked ever so much like a wicked father? A God whose anger required the crucifixion of His only son?

    The warning, the stern warning in Scripture, is not for those who call innocent well-meaning hell-fire preachers to task, but for those who cause one of these little ones to stumble.

    What I have said is not disproportionate – not even close.

    I do this ministry (not the internet stuff but my priesthood) day in and day out. I have yet to find victims of preaching centered on the man-loving God, but I pick up victims by the truckload of the well-meaning hell-fire guys. I cannot count the number of times I have had to lead someone to the brink of atheism so that I could lead them to the love of God.

    I’ll keep doing what I’m doing – but I’m not very interested in pulling the punches on this.

  41. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Here’s one examination of the issue of “hardening” in Scripture. I am somewhat partial to this one because I know a bit of the author and how he thinks about many things, so it flows for me:


  42. PJ Avatar

    “But in the West it is those words that have been used by many egotistic preachers to the perdition and revolt of their audience.”

    Of course, prudence is necessary, Dino. Of course! If this is the general reaction, then the preacher is indeed playing into the devil’s hand. But I don’t think that was — or is — always the case. In my own experience, the occasional stiff reminder of hell’s reality has done me good. Repentance is always the goal, never terror. And even in the search for repentance, fear perdition shouldn’t be used as a goad.

    St. Augustine wrote: “The end of every commandment is charity, that is, every commandment has love for its aim. But whatever is done either through fear of punishment or from some other carnal motive, and has not for its principle that love which the Spirit of God sheds abroad in the heart, is not done as it ought to be done, however it may appear to men” (Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love).

  43. fatherstephen Avatar

    “The integrity and coherence of Scripture…”

    That is indeed a hobgoblin. Christ’s Pascha is the integrity and coherence of Scripture and its only integrity and coherence. It is coherent only as read by the Church and for the Church. It’s integrity lies in the fact that it is received as Scripture given by God in the Church. Only Protestantism need worry about a self-existing integrity and coherence of Scripture.

    Does any deviation from historical consistency damage the integrity of Scripture? Does Matthew’s 2 donkeys versus Luke’s 1 donkey at Palm Sunday damage the integrity of Scripture? Should I just keep multiplying such problems? I’m no fundamentalist and I have no interest in defending something that is simply not true. The integrity of Scripture must lie somewhere other than the literal level – for the literal level simply contains mistakes. Plain and simple.

    So what hermeneutical principle shall we employ?

    Christ’s Pascha. For this is the testimony of the Scripture itself. “He opened their understanding…” “Their understanding” which is a “Pascha of the mind” is the only possible integrity – for the Scriptures made no true sense to them until He gave them that opening.

    I do not ignore the OT – but I read it only through Christ’s Pascha.

    As to the matter of “grace…” There is no “more grace” or “less grace.” It is the Divine Life in which we live and move and have our being. The Holy Spirit only “fills,” it only gives “fullness,” for He “filleth all things.” No, our response is where the mystery lies – not a God whose measured grace produces a puppet show.

    Augustine is among the fathers, but his reading of grace is incorrect. Would you defend a double-edged predestination? It’s rather hard not to based on what you’ve said.

  44. Mary Lanser Avatar


    I am also partial to this particular teaching on the hardening of the heart.


  45. fatherstephen Avatar

    “Obfuscate the doctrine of hell.” Which doctrine of hell is that? That is indeed the point. Where have I ever denied hell? It is the typical hell-fire preaching that obfuscates – for it hides the love of God behind a curtain of retribution and punishment.

    I respect and preach the fiery God – my life burns more often than not! And far less than is required by my own sins. But knowing that the burning of my life is the love of God doesn’t make me complacent – fire is fire. But knowing that it is the love of God does keep me from despairing of my own salvation and cursing God.

  46. PJ Avatar

    I wish only to contend for the charity and wisdom of those many saints of the Church — western, yes, but also eastern — who believed that God is both merciful and just; that he is kind yet righteous; that heaven is reward as much as hell is punishment. These men were simple and learned, hermits and popes, Romans and barbarians, and everything in between. I cannot condemn them, nor deny wholesale their interpretation of Scripture, plain though it may sometimes have been. I am not entirely comfortable with the eschatology of, say, Pope Leo the Great, but can I in good conscience submit him to contempt as a poisoner of young minds? No, I cannot. Is there not common ground between us?

  47. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Quick two thoughts:

    Augustine would say that God does not harden the heart.

    Aquinas would say that God hardens the heart: only in the sense that God is first cause.

    So actually those two positions are not contradictory but co-inhere the truth that God is Good, and God is First Cause.

    odd but true:


  48. PJ Avatar

    “Does any deviation from historical consistency damage the integrity of Scripture.”

    Come now! You know I don’t believe that. But can we deny every great and terrible act of God in the Old Testament? The killing of the Egyptian firstborns? The destruction of pharaoh’s army? If these things did not happen, then how did Israel escape? And why did Moses just make it all up? Is the Old Testament no different than Homer? A good portion of the hymnody and pslamody of Israel is dedicated to the “saving acts” of God in history. Many of these apparently left bodies in their wakes. What are we to make of these? I ask you earnestly, not contentiously, Father.

  49. Dino Avatar

    All your clarifications have been massively helpful; I am much obliged yet again! Can’t get enough of them!
    I find it, for such an impersonal medium as the Internet, a surprisingly personal, kind, straight-talking counsel on numerous important issues.
    I echo Mary’s (Lanser’s) characterisation of that succinct quote from you and Father Meletios…
    We could, could we not, make it shorter still as a call to ‘Nepsis’?

    If only I “saw the Lord always before me, at my right hand”, I would not be shaken from the “real self”.
    Which brings us back to what -I blatantly characterise- the “sure-fire way” of staying cemented in those only two “locations” where God is to be encountered: Here and Now.
    The difference between our usual state of ‘roaming the entire universe of space and time’ (!) with our mind on the one hand, and keeping the mind deep in our heart of hearts under God’s gentle gaze (which it seems is felt most intensely there), on the other, emerges as the difference between night and day! Of course we might sometimes spend a great deal of time in ‘twilight zone’, but once we allow ourselves to taste it we trust to then at least be drawn to it ever after.

    I guess it’s all too clear that I take great pleasure every time you come back to incorporate that subject in all others. It seems to me some of the most solid advise -especially for today’s believers.

  50. drewster2000 Avatar


    I don’t think there is a lack of common ground, just deep misunderstandings. You keep insisting on God’s wrath and the hell fires to go with it to satisfy justice. Fr. Stephen and others say, yes there’s fire, but it’s God’s love which burns those who reject it and purifies those who accept it.

    You seem to hold the commonly Western idea of a justice that must be satisfied and which involves rights and recompense and just rewards. They seem to view justice in a non-legal way that entails everything becoming what it was meant to be – no legal contracts and penalties, but all being resurrected and restored.

    I find myself wondering why you hold onto the image of the scales of equality and measurement when God does not. I believe I know where you’re coming from because I’ve been there, but that idea of justice pales in comparison to the truth and it also brings no peace or joy to anyone.

  51. Dino Avatar

    if you did not know the OT -as you now do. And later came to know it entirely through the prism of the NT, (without the tiniest portion of ‘Jewish’ understanding) you would have a far more nuanced understanding of all those OT stories. You also would not be bothered if any of them became historically disproved. Especially since, for instance, the “Exodus” would be so intensely, personally understood as what it signifies in the world of the Spiritual life,
    (from death to life,
    from slavery of passions to the land of dispassion with the help of the spiritual Father,
    or the three stages of first Grace-Its hiding period – its 2nd glorious return etc etc etc), that this would utterly dominate, same goes for the Psalms and for everything in fact…

  52. PJ Avatar

    “Would you defend a double-edged predestination? It’s rather hard not to based on what you’ve said.”

    No, definitely not. That is heresy. I’m just a run of the mill Catholic in this regards, following after Augustine and Thomas, but recognizing first and foremost that the mystery of salvation is just that: a mystery. I find it very helpful to recognize that the will of God is, as I said, qualitatively rather than quantitatively different than the human will. I find it helpful to stick to simple Scriptural language in this regard: We are saved by faith working through love, with both faith and love being gifts from God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

  53. PJ Avatar

    “You also would not be bothered if any of them became historically disproved. ”

    I wouldn’t be so sure … :-/

  54. Dino Avatar

    concerning the purely theoretical thesis that “any of them became historically disproved”, I mean to say that the Faith that God grants should have nothing to fear. It is not based so much on ‘historical proofs’ once it’s been “engraved in the heart” through the visitation of God’s unforgettable encounter.
    It follows that one who has such Faith is not one who might have felt threatened when (for example) the Earth was proven not to be flat – as many were threatened. Of course such a person would also know that there is far more than what a secular person thinks there is and would be viewed as having a certain disbelief of a great deal of what is served us as ‘scientific’ or ‘historical’ fact.
    I would liken it to a wise old man who inevitably takes a great deal (of what madly excites or depresses a youngster), quite stoically, having experience of a much wider picture. He also sees God’s hand where others might not – to the point of not really seeing what others see (the “obvious reality” of events). It becomes impossible to read on Amaliek or Egypt, or Zion, or David’s enemies as the historical facts they were, as tears of compunction cannot stop flowing from his eyes and heart which leaps at the most personal ‘allegorical’ understanding that God’s presence confers to these…

  55. MgtPgh Avatar

    “I cannot count the number of times I have had to lead someone to the brink of atheism so that I could lead them to the love of God.”

    Father, Bless

    How is this done? Being a new convert to Orthodoxy who was raised on Southern Baptist and other hell fire preachers, I find this an unusual approach!

    In Christ,

  56. fatherstephen Avatar

    Ah, PJ. Reading more carefully, I see a problem.

    You are reading, Ephesians 2:8-9 incorrectly. It does not say that faith is a gift. It says that grace is a gift. The “touto” (this) does not refer to “pistis” (faith), but to the whole phrase, “For by grace have you been saved through faith.” The sense of it is that grace is given to us, received by faith.

    But to make the whole, the grace given and the faith response to be the gift, is to remove any human action whatsoever – the so-called monergistic view of salvation. If this is the Catholic faith, then it is a point at which it differs from the Orthodox faith. The response, however weak and feeble it may be, remains our response. It may be “drawn to” God, or “enticed” whatever word we choose – but we still act.

    We obviously do not save ourselves – but we indeed must respond to our salvation.

    The other take always sounds pious and as though it honors God. “It’s all God…it’s not me at all…” But it is not the teaching of the Orthodox faith. It is the teaching of Calvin and he errs. If it is a teaching of Augustine (I’m no Augustinian expert), then Augustine errs, because it’s not the teaching of the Orthodox faith. If it’s the teaching of the Papacy, then the Papacy errs, because it’s not the Orthodox faith.

  57. PJ Avatar

    That’s just it: I don’t think the will of God and the will of man vie for the same pie. It’s not like God does 75% and we do 25%, or vice versa. It is all God, and it’s all us … in radically different ways. We must work, yes, but we work because we are illumined and inspired by the Spirit and joined unto the Son. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” We see here that we work because God works in us and through us. But our very works were “prepared beforehand.” This goes back to the line from the Mass: Our merits are themselves his gifts, in wondrous and inexplicable way. We are glorified in and through him, and he is glorified in and through us. Only in the broadest sense can it be said to be “all of God. (Does not God uphold and govern all things? Is this not what it means to say that he is the very ground of being?)

    The Council of Trent declared: “The beginning of… justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight. Whence, when it is said in the sacred writings: Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you, we are admonished of our liberty; and when we answer; Convert us, O Lord, to thee, and we shall be converted, we confess that we are prevented by the grace of God.”

    I therefore believe that I am at least within the boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy when I say that grace is that which gives us the freedom to choose God. By grace our freedom is firmly established, for the love of God is poured into our hearts. Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit within us, which is given gratuitously because and by the ministry of the Son, we cannot heed the call of the Father.

    As First Vatican Council declared: “Faith is a supernatural virtue by which we with the inspiration and assistance of God’s grace, believe those things to be true which He has revealed … [A]lthough the assent of faith is in no sense blind, yet no one can assent to the Gospel teaching in the way necessary for salvation without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, Who bestows on all a sweetness in believing and consenting to the truth.”

    Man’s freedom was “deadened” by the fall. It is “enlivened” by grace, which is the new heart, the heart of flesh, given to us because of God’s philanthropia.

    The Council of Dositheus declares similarly, if not quite so strongly:

    “And we understand the use of free-will thus, that the Divine and illuminating grace, and which we call preventing grace, being, as a light to those in darkness, by the Divine goodness imparted to all, to those that are willing to obey this — for it is of use only to the willing, not to the unwilling — and co-operate with it, in what it requireth as necessary to salvation, there is consequently granted particular grace; which, co-operating with us, and enabling us, and making us perseverant in the love of God, that is to say, in performing those good things that God would have us to do, and which His preventing grace admonisheth us that we should do, justifieth us, and maketh us predestinated. But those who will not obey, and co-operate with grace; and, therefore, will not observe those things that God would have us perform, and that abuse in the service of Satan the free-will, which they have received of God to perform voluntarily what is good, are consigned to eternal condemnation.”

    We are in very deep waters. 🙂 I appreciate you humoring me. I hope I didn’t come off too harshly. God bless you, Father.

  58. Dino Avatar

    Indeed, I never saw that earlier… If you really meant to say what you said (“Even our faith is a gift from him who gives all things”) as based on Ephesians 2:8-9, PJ, that is certainly not what it is saying as Father Stephen just clarified.
    That word “this”(and “it is” later on), (the original: τοῦτο) absolutely refers to “salvation” (salvation by grace and through faith).
    God’s call requires our response.
    The less we reason and the more we enter the heart in repentance and awe and stay there as we discussed above, the more these things get ironed out, far better that way…

  59. PJ Avatar

    Chrysostom, in his homily on that passage, writes: “So that the work of faith itself is not our own.” However, I can’t discern exactly what he means by that. His interpretation may not be exactly that of Augustine.

    Check it out for yourselves and tell me what you think: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/230104.htm

    Nevertheless, the Catholic Church affirmed that faith is itself a gift at the Council of Orange, which declared: “If anyone says that not only the increase of faith but also its beginning and the very desire for faith, by which we believe in Him who justifies the ungodly and comes to the regeneration of holy baptism — if anyone says that this belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness, it is proof that he is opposed to the teaching of the Apostles, for blessed Paul says, “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And again, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). For those who state that the faith by which we believe in God is natural make all who are separated from the Church of Christ by definition in some measure believers.”

    Orange was held in the 6th century, IIRC, though it was obviously a regional synod, not an ecumenical council. Still, it is obviously an early theologoumenon.

    What do you think about that canon in particular, Dino?

  60. Rhonda Avatar

    Mary L.

    I know that I come late to the discussion, but I currently work graveyard shift & sleep days 🙁 Only 3 more weeks…:-)

    Be careful about focusing on only 1 verse of an OT story…read the whole for the context & what “really” is presented. Take your example of the Exodus narrative for instance. Yes, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex 9:12; 10:20, 27; 11:10; 14:8). But Pharaoh had already hardened his own heart (Ex 7:13, 22; 8:19; 9:7)! Perhaps a better take on “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” might be that God used Pharaoh’s self-will to His own advantage? IMO I tend to feel that God “foreknows” how we will act & react in accordance with our free-will & will put such a one as Pharaoh or Judas in the proper place & time to bring about His own purpose, which is nothing other than our salvation.

  61. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    PJ – your Catholicism seems much more complicated than mine

    The interplay between grace and free will (gift and faith) is not something I could ever hope to define.

    I cannot think or even draw breath apart from the grace of God. That I am allowed to choose a faith response to grace’s invitation is itself a great (and terrifying) gift.

    It is a great gift because it allows me to follow the Way out of love, rather than by nature’s necessity. It is terrifying because, in my weakness, I may fail to do it.

    Aware of my weakness, I pray for grace, knowing that it is ever flowing in abundance for those who long for it.

  62. PJ Avatar

    If we imagine God as a sort of super-powerful celestial king randomly dispensing favors from his abode in the sky, than the Augustinian-Thomistic understanding of grace — indeed, any Christian understanding of reality at large — appears rather wretched and bizarre. It must be pondered with the knowledge that God is the Being itself, “in whom we live, and move, and have our being,” who guides and governs all things, the Source and the Goal, the Alpha and the Omega, both trustworthy and loving. So much is still hidden behind the veil…

  63. Rhonda Avatar


    What we have here is differences in interpretation that we each feel is required by various texts. No one here has denied “Hell”…we just have differences as to the “nature” of Hell. The view of the East is vastly different than the West…obviously! The East does not view Heaven-Hell as reward-punishment..such an interpretation just is not required & has even been (& continues to be) detrimental

    To project such an interpretation towards the OT only makes it worse & contorts what may be known of God. The OT must be viewed through the lens of Christ, the Son of God. The West, especially the Calvinists, instead view the Son of God through the lens of the OT & end up rationalizing horrid views of God. In the end they make God not God, or at the very least a god that few want to worship!

    Fr. Stephen well states…
    “I have rarely heard hellfire preached by the kind…”
    His later statement…
    “I have yet to find victims of preaching centered on the man-loving God, but I pick up victims by the truckload of the well-meaning hell-fire guys. I cannot count the number of times I have had to lead someone to the brink of atheism so that I could lead them to the love of God.”…
    ceased to surprise me years ago. I too have seen more people driven into unbelief by the sincere & well-meaning than “saved”. I commend those like Fr. Stephen who strive to free such victims (for that is what they are); it is no easy task.

    Perhaps rather than beating us Orthodox verbally as to what we believe or do not believe you might want to ask yourself just why do you need such a retributive & punishing God?

  64. PJ Avatar


    Well, I don’t usually go around thinking such things.

    I keep in mind the words of St. Paul: “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” That free and loving initiative that made God bring light out of darkness has made his love shine out of the darkness of our hearts. This is his doing, not ours. We can only assume a posture of thankfulness, charity, and obedience. If we crow about election, or presume on his grace, or take courage in our own works, or grow introspective and fixated on discerning our “status” before God, then that fundamental position — at once thankful, charitable, and obedient — is forsaken and lost. Ultimately, it all comes down to prayer and praise; love of God and neighbor. That’s probably what I should be focusing on. 🙂

  65. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen –

    Thank you for your excellent response to my question many comments ago. Thank you also for your response to Mary L.’s question which had been on my mind as well.

    “We obviously do not save ourselves – but we indeed must respond to our salvation.” Simply put, very true. (I just tweeted this, giving you due credit, of course.)

  66. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m not terribly concerned to split hairs on this – my description of faith as an organ of perception is a borrowing from Vladimir Lossky – whose theology I hold in great regard. The point that is essential, regardless of the mystery that surrounds it (you’ve learned how to play the mystery card in your time on the blog), is that there is something of “our own” that is indeed required in salvation – whether we locate it in faith or faith as an act of the will – or the will playing some role in faith. For there certainly cannot be faith without the will. On the will, the Council of Dositheus (doubtless the most ham-handed writing ever to have been penned by the Orthodox – it was a bad century and written in response to Calvinism, and thus expressed in Western scholastic terms – makes me kind of seasick just to read it – but it’s Orthodox nonetheless) says:

    And we understand the use of free-will thus, that the Divine and illuminating grace, and which we call preventing grace, being, as a light to those in darkness, by the Divine goodness imparted to all, to those that are willing to obey this — for it is of use only to the willing, not to the unwilling — and co-operate with it, in what it requireth as necessary to salvation, there is consequently granted particular grace; which, co-operating with us, and enabling us, and making us perseverant in the love of God, that is to say, in performing those good things that God would have us to do, and which His preventing grace admonisheth us that we should do, justifieth us, and maketh us predestinated. But those who will not obey, and co-operate with grace; and, therefore, will not observe those things that God would have us perform, and that abuse in the service of Satan the free-will, which they have received of God to perform voluntarily what is good, are consigned to eternal condemnation.

    If there is no co-operation (synergy) then our salvation (or damnation) is just a game.

  67. PJ Avatar


    I associate hell with “punishment” because that is the word used by our Savior. “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Maybe the underlying Greek sheds more light on the matter. Dino might know about this. Or maybe, in my ignorance, I don’t recognize the true meaning of the Lord’s words.

    I’m more than happy to admit that “punishment” has a variety of meanings. Maybe the punishment is strictly remedial, though then I’m not sure how it is “eternal punishment.” But, then, what do we really know about eternity? Maybe there’s even more revelation to come, when all things are brought under the feet of Christ, and every knee bows. As I said, the veil is only partially lifted …

    As for the Old Testament: I do my best to read it in light of the New Testament, following the fathers and doctors of the Church.

    This is the question: Does a Christocentric hermeneutic necessitate — or even allow — the denial of the events recorded in the Old Testament? The fathers employed a Christocentric hermeneutic, but surely most of them accepted the basic historicity of the text. That is, they believed Israel was truly in bondage in Egypt, that God freed them through plagues and punishments, that he destroyed pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, that he opened the earth to swallow the rebellious Israelites, etc.

    Without a doubt, parts of the Old Testament must be fundamentally reinterpreted. For instance, we aren’t about to start praying for the brains of infants. But I think it is fair to make a distinction between, say, the imprecatory psalms and the destruction of pharaoh’s army.

    Is this “western”? Ultimately, I’m not sure how helpful it is to pit the “east” versus the “west” on this question. I imagine both Ambrose and Cyril would be equally surprised to learn that the Exodus never occurred — if indeed that is the case. We recognize the hand of God in the present by observing it in the past. Witness the words of our beloved Basil, gem of the oriental church, wrote: “For He Who smote the first-born of Egypt, for its harshness towards Israel, also struck the son of the Emperor with disease. How great was the speed! There was the sentence of banishment, here the decree of sickness: the hand of the wicked scribe was restrained, and the saint was preserved, and the man of piety presented to us, by the fever which brought to reason the arrogance of the Emperor. ” This is the voice of a man who knows that God works in history with blessing and judgment. Are we not to follow his example?

  68. PJ Avatar


    I understand what you meant by “organ, etc.” I didn’t mean to nitpick. Just musing. I don’t mean to bog you down in your least favorite of ecclesial epochs. 😉

    I think we’re in agreement on the reality of synergy, even if the emphasis and flavor varies. The last thing I wish to suggest is that we are finger puppets of the Divine Hand.

    What I’m confused about is how we are to parse and discern and understand the Old Testament. I know you’ve written about this in the past, but perhaps eventually you’ll sink your teeth into it again. I don’t mean to be neurotic or polemical: I’m reading through the prophets, so all these “great acts” of God in the history of Israel are at the forefront of my mind.

  69. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Thank Rhonda! If you take a look at some of the links that I placed above you’ll see that I am aware and only using that brief reference to point to a whole cluster of pericopes that are addressed by the holy fathers, east and west, on the subject of divine grace, and the divine will. I find that whole discussion fascinating and was happy to see it engaged here.


  70. PJ Avatar


    I missed this: “Perhaps rather than beating us Orthodox verbally as to what we believe or do not believe you might want to ask yourself just why do you need such a retributive & punishing God?”

    So you’ve been talking to my therapist, have you … ? I kid (sort of!).

    But seriously, I’m sorry if I “beat” you. Wasn’t my intention!

  71. Mary Lanser Avatar

    PJ: One of the first things Father Hal pointed out to me, as we began to discuss points of doctrine, is that the Latin word poena that is translated as punishment has as one of its primary meanings the word “loss”…He said that the holy fathers of the west understood poena as loss. So you can see that there is a shading of meaning that gets lost in translation.


  72. Fr Aidan Kimel Avatar

    I have no problem speaking of faith as a gift. I could not speak of it in any other way.

    All lovers understand this. They understand not only that the love that their beloved showers upon them in is gratuitous and undeserved; they also understand that the love that they experience within themselves is itself a gift generated by the love of the beloved. That I can begin to love, that I do love, is a miracle. But we aren’t talking metaphysics here. We are talking existential reality.

    Something similar, I think, happens with regards to faith understood as trust. I cannot trust someone until they make an unconditional promise to me, either explicitly or implicitly. Until such a promise is made, there can be no trust, for there is nothing to trust. The trust I experience as a result of the promise is the gift bestowed upon me by the promise. Faith is a gift of the promise. Again, we are not talking metaphysics. We are talking existential reality.

    Hence I believe it is proper, and indeed necessary, to speak of faith as a gift of the Spirit. Would we want to claim otherwise? Would we want to claim our trust and love as our contribution toward our salvation? I don’t think so. The heart of Augustinian spirituality is the experience of giftedness–all comes from God, even the freedom to trust and love. And so we stand before God with utter and complete gratitude.

    But where Augustine went wrong, IMHO, is when he began to draw predestinarian conclusions from the experience of giftedness. His logic ultimately led him to a version of limited atonement and (almost) double predestination. Calvin simply connected the dots.

    Arminian Roger Olsen has recently criticized the recent Baptist truce between Calvinists and Arminians (http://goo.gl/Fwfwm). He thinks the Calvinists are being disingenuous when they say that they truly believe that God wills the salvation of everyone. I think he is right. Nor do I think the matter is helped by invoking “mystery” at this point, as PJ does. This isn’t mystery–it’s contradiction! The same might be said for Augustinians and Thomists who believe in efficacious grace. If God truly wills the salvation of everyone, then everyone *will* be saved. That’s what efficacious grace means. If not everyone ends up being saved, then it can only be because God has not efficaciously willed their salvation.

    Love is the mystery. Faith is the mystery. Life from death is the mystery. This isn’t logic. It’s a miracle.

    To my fellow Orthodox: take a look at St Basil’s *On the Holy Spirit*. In this treatise he is clear that confession and worship of Christ only occurs “in the Spirit.” What does this mean? Why is the Spirit necessary for faith and worship? This is the point of contact with Augustinians.

  73. PJ Avatar


    Interesting. Now what is the original Greek word and what are its connotations?

  74. Mary Lanser Avatar

    It’s the same: It is one of the Latin words that came directly from the Greek: means loss, pain, suffering, discomfort, consequence.

  75. Dino Avatar

    I am clearly interested in the Spiritual comprehension rather than the scientific perceptions of OT events. I sometimes read on the science behind OT, or even about the science behind death on a cross, but it is always a distraction from the one thing needful… Concentrating on that ‘one thing’ puts one “in that day”, where we “shall ask Him nothing”… Nothing else ever does. The exclusive use of rationalistic reasoning to get all answers is a bottomless pit of no way out…

    Biblical scholars see it differently of course (often as the secular/ atheist world sees things). Ok, they are sometimes prepared to admit a historical core beneath Exodus – perceiving Biblical narrative as a dramatised portrayal -in one-, of a very extended process of migration and conquest.
    Consensus among scholars, in fact, is far more ‘against’, rather than ‘for’ an exodus – of the Biblical proportion. Most of them, seem to be taking the whole story as Theology, (God’s multifaceted actions to save his beloved), and not as history. Nevertheless, that discussion -of the historical reality of Exodus- has a very long history, and continues to to this day. Some have given up on it for all sorts of reasons(…)
    I think that the theological understanding of say, the story of Joseph, as a clearly astounding “type” of Christ’s first coming, his betrayal, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and His Glorious Second coming is far more significant. Extremely so.
    I could dramatise the stories of the first Martyrs and their persecutors, using poetic license to produce a clear lesson on the heart’s journey from darkness to Light, or what will happen in the End Times.
    If then, all historical facts were investigated; (with my, as well as the investigators’ propensity for exaggeration) one might end up reading that study of my writings and discard my clear lesson altogether – wouldn’t they be in error?

  76. PJ Avatar


    I see your point, though I don’t think the comparison is totally apt. Poetic license is different from fabrication.

    I know that many scholars regard the Old Testament as largely fictitious or mythological. But many scholars also regard the New Testament the exact same way. Is the resurrection any less fantastic than the parting of the Red Sea? Is the incarnation any less incredible than Noah’s ark?

    I certainly don’t want to fixate on the historicity of the Old Testament. I just think it should be, by and large, taken for granted, for God does not deceive. With its reality established, we can concentrate on spiritual readings of the text. I’ve no desire to get bogged down in discussions of “where exactly did the Ark land,” etc., and I’m happy to allow for some exaggeration/poetic license/legend-telling, yet it seems to me that the “great acts” of God in history — to use a common example, the Exodus — must be guarded and maintain against the doubts of modernity.

    Do you see what I mean?

  77. Dino Avatar

    Yes, of course I do.

  78. Rhonda Avatar


    Well said about different meanings to words (such as punishment). Also keep in mind that most English translations today were & are done by those with the Protestant mindset! Therefore, many words & even entire passages are translated accordingly. The use of fellowship rather than communion as well as elder instead of priest/bishop are just a couple of examples.This often even carries over into original language concordances in common use.

    In the verse you quoted, I have no problem with punishment as understood by discipline & chastisement which has curative & corrective goals. It’s the retributive “getting even” aspect that is so dominant in the West that I doubt (& even reject).

    “Does a Christocentric hermeneutic necessitate — or even allow — the denial of the events recorded in the Old Testament? The fathers employed a Christocentric hermeneutic, but surely most of them accepted the basic historicity of the text.”

    I do not “deny” the OT record, nor does the Orthodox mindset necessitate or allow such. But they are viewed for their spiritual meaning through Christ & His Pascha. Even the Fathers tended to interpret them analogously rather than literally or even historically as is common today. I know many an evangelical that can exegete & hermaneuticize Scriptural texts that would make Dino look like a rank amateur! But in doing so they frequently rend the text of all of its beauty, glory & majesty, not to mention all of its spiritual meaning & importance, leaving only a dry barren text that only academic elites sometimes find of historical interest.

    We do not start with the OT in order to understand Christ, but rather we start with Christ in order to understand the OT. This is not the same as denial of the OT…nor does it require such a denial.

    FWIW though, most of the Fathers did doubt the “historicity” (in our modern understanding) of many of the Genesis narratives & especially the lifespans of hundreds of years. The OT (especially the Pentateuch) for the most part was handed down orally long before it was written down supposedly by Moses. Therefore we need to be careful in declaring with certainty the literal & historical aspects of many of the OT narratives.

    Even the historicity of Adam & Eve was questioned. Many viewed the story for its spiritual meaning to explain why we humans are sinful & our fallen nature rather than as a literal narrative of an historic couple. The spiritual meaning of the narrative of Adam & Eve does not require an actual Adam & Eve to have existed. It is a narrative that reveals a truth, not a truth that reveals a narrative. The OT was never intended & should never be interpreted with the literalness that one would expect from a modern media headline story.

  79. fatherstephen Avatar

    Fr. Aidan,
    I will indeed look at St. Basil. It’s the only form of meat I’m now allowed to eat!

  80. Mary Lanser Avatar

    I do think it is a pretty serious misreading of Augustine to presume that his understanding of nature and grace/human will and divine will are simply an incomplete Calvinism. That may not be happening here but it does happen, and I’ve heard Orthodox believers say so outright.


  81. PJ Avatar

    “Hence I believe it is proper, and indeed necessary, to speak of faith as a gift of the Spirit. Would we want to claim otherwise? Would we want to claim our trust and love as our contribution toward our salvation? I don’t think so. The heart of Augustinian spirituality is the experience of giftedness–all comes from God, even the freedom to trust and love. And so we stand before God with utter and complete gratitude.”

    Beautifully said, Father.

  82. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mary, I too have heard similar statements from my fellow Orthodox. One of the most compelling was from a man in my parish who is a world renown scholar and translator and former Jesuit.

    Yet, there is something qualitatively different about Augustine that is missing from Calvin, Augustine’s heart for God. That is what led Fr. Seraphim Rose of blessed memory to defend Augustine from those in the Church who think him evil.

  83. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Michael: Depends on what you see when you read or study Augustine: if you read or study Augustine. Do you see a man who stopped short of his logical conclusions out of blindness: or do you see a man whose fundamental thelogical propositions allowed him to stop where he stopped logically AND truthfully. If you think the former then perhaps you missed the original propositions.


  84. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Haven’t studied him. I read his Confessions many years ago. It was helpful. I’m trying to get my son to read it. The excerpts from City of God that I have read I find though provoking.

    I find the attitude in the Orthodox Church toward Augustine is gradually becoming more charitable.

  85. Dino Avatar

    I find that too Michael, there is a recognition -of late- that Augustine is a great Saint of the Church and the fact that those who erred in the West were based on him, (misunderstanding him that is), should not detract from his reputation as had done in recent years. (One could err while considering himself based on St. Basil too in theory.)
    We need to remember that he is the greatest theologian of the West – but he is no match for the Eastern Fathers. The clarity and depth that was achieved through the Cappadocians and St Maximus is of a much higher level.

  86. fatherstephen Avatar

    I personally live Augustine. He’s a remarkable man. However great his mind, I find him problematic theologically, if only for the fact that his knowledge and mastery of the great Conciliar fathers is lacking. Thus he sort of sails out there alone in his work. It’s interesting, occasionally even good, but is only tangentially related to the main body of the Church’s thought. The pity is that this tangent became a secondary foundation in the Western Church, eventually contributing to the schism and to present misunderstandings. On the matter of anthropology and salvation, Maximus in the following century was far more complete and integrated..and too ignored.

  87. PJ Avatar

    I’m not so sure sure, Dino. Augustine is not easily dismissed. His De Trinitate is one of the most astounding and profound works ever to issue from the pen of a Christian. Khaled Anatolios, in his examination of the Nicene faith (Retrieving Nicaea), chose three theologians through whom to consider the doctrine of the Trinity. They are Athanasius, Gregory Nyssa, and, yes, Augustine. Say what you will about the filioque (another long misunderstood point in the theology of Augustine), but De Trinitate alone earns Augustine a place of honor among the fathers.

    Then there’s the City of God, the Confessions, Expositions on the Psalms, several major works against the still very dangerous Manicheans, the “trilogy of grace” (On the Letter and the Spirit, On Nature and Grace, On Grace and Free Will), various and sundry moral essays (perhaps the most important of which is On Lying), and finally his wonderful Johannine meditations — Tractates on the Gospel and Homilies on the First Epistle — which were composed in the twilight years, at the height of Christian maturity. Finally, he produced one of the earliest monastic rules.

    Augustine also basically single-handedly defeated the heresy of Pelagianism. He gave himself utterly to the defeat of the Pelagians, in a struggle that was sometimes lonely and always frustrating. If he occasionally over-reacted during this great fight, it was only because he rightly sensed that Pelagianism was (is) a potentially lethal heresy, capable of utterly undermining the venerable catholic faith. If Orthodox — nay, all Christians — owe anything to Augustine, it is thanks for the intellectual and spiritual combat he waged fearlessly against Pelagius, Julian, Celestius, and their ilk.

    It is a pity he perished when he did: just one year more and he would have seen himself vindicated at Ephesus on 431, which condemned Pelagius and Celestius both.

    Maximus, of course, is in a league of his own, though he lived so much later, and was more of a synthesizer, if a highly original one …

  88. PJ Avatar


    ” if only for the fact that his knowledge and mastery of the great Conciliar fathers is lacking. ”

    The Nicene Creed was barely 25-years-old when Augustine was born. He was no more than 35 when the Second Ecumenical Council was held (and it was really only there and then that Nicaea was confirmed and established). Augustine was himself a champion of the early counciliar faith, a shepherd who fended the catholic flock from Donatist, Arian, Manichean, and Pelagian wolves. Had he been born a decade or so later, he might well have been an imposing presence at Ephesus.

    I do wonder what contact he had with the major eastern fathers of his day. Say, Cyril or Gregory Nazianzen. Does anyone know of any correspondence?

  89. Anna Avatar

    Perhaps his prayers after his passing were part of the results at Ephesus. 🙂

  90. PJ Avatar

    Revenge … from beyond the grave! 😀

  91. Dino Avatar

    I agree that one sees that he spoke (as one could only have done) with the command bestowed by the Spirit, PJ, it’s just that Maximus in particular is clearly a different league.
    There is always the personal element remember in who you prefer…
    I could make similar comparisons in other areas such as (the ascetical writers in the Philokalia).

  92. Fr Aidan Kiimel Avatar

    On St Augustine and predestination: http://www.ewtn.com/library/THEOLOGY/AUGUSTIN.HTM

    One doesn’t have to be Orthodox to be critical of Augustinian predestinarianism.

  93. Fr Aidan Kiimel Avatar

    St Maximus must be brilliant, as I sure can’t understand him. Of course, I exist on the lowest of the lowest noetic levels 🙂

  94. PJ Avatar

    That’s true. Augustine tends to be more easily understood to the common man. That might account for some of his popularity — and his danger.

  95. Mary Lanser Avatar

    I think the following is a bit better a “reading” of St. Augustine on predestination than the one offered by Father William Most. At least it is more thorough and demonstrates more of an interest in Augustinian theology than it does in demonstrating points in biblical translation and history which are the strong suits of Father Most.



  96. Dino Avatar

    St. Maximus words -most especially – in the original (admittedly difficult) Greek are absolutely unmatched!
    Perhaps not so much his sublime allegories, but most certainly his words on the uncreatedd “logoi” and man’s ascent to their understanding. And how man connects all that is divided into one, or his words on the Cosmic mystery of the Divine Logos.
    Of course personal preference is a huge factor always to be respected.

    I find it very difficult in large quantities, especially in the original, but trying to read a lot of Saint Maximus in one out of enthusiasm works for very very few, in fact you might even end up tempted to see it as tedious, to some extent, it is like eating tons and tons of the best of one highly regarded food.
    Tiny gems can take you more than 24 hours of ruminating to ‘digest’.

    It would be nice for someone to make a picky collection of these (I have seen it done with ascetical writers like Saint Isaac the Syrian before – although he can seem like a collection of densely packed aphorisms even in the original sometimes) to produce a more accessible version

  97. Mary Lanser Avatar

    The following are also exceptionally more detailed articles on Augustine and Predestination than the Fr. Wm Most article. I am not arguing in favor of Augustine’s position here: I do not need to do that: it is not a teaching that is taken up fully or dogmatically by my Church, but I present them in defense of my assertion that Augustine was not simply blinded to truth when he developed his teaching and he also made certain corrections to them in his Retractations. Professor Peter Gilbert is Orthodox and a scholar whose work I have come to admire and trust over the years:



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