Grace and the Psychology of God

God-by-Michelangelo-BuonarrotiWe are human beings. We think, we feel. I like to think that my dog thinks and feels. The semi-imaginary conversations we have as we take our long, daily walks are entertaining for me, even though I have to supply his side of the dialog.

God is not a dog. But we supply His dialog as well and we impute to Him thoughts and feelings like our own. God is angry. God is pleased. God is gentle. God is stern. For many Christians, managing God’s emotions and thoughts can be at least as serious as the other many co-dependent struggles of their day.

“Will God hate me if I…?” I have heard this question more than once. It tells me nothing about God but it tells me a world about the inner torture of the one who asks it.

So I will be clear at the outset: God does not feel as we do. God does not think as we do. We use such language because we are human beings. But the poetic language of Scripture in such matters becomes something utterly misleading and delusional when codified into the principles of theology. And they can become the stuff of deep neurosis and psychotic delusion in the minds and hearts of the weak.

There is no psychology of the Divine.

When I was a child I was taught that grace was “God’s unmerited favor.” It sounded theological, and, understood in a certain manner, it was correct. But like all psychological descriptions of God, it fails to adequately say what must be said. God does not have an “attitude.” “Favor” and “disfavor” are images that carry a theological meaning, but they mislead if understood in a literal manner.

Orthodox teaching declares that grace is “uncreated.” By this it means that grace is nothing other than God Himself. It is God’s Life or the Divine Energies. Grace is the action of God in the world, in my life and within my being. And grace is not God’s actions apart from God (simple effects), but the acting of God in the world. And God is His acting.

When St. Paul writes that we are saved by grace through faith, he is not making reference to God’s attitude towards us. Nor when he says the “wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” is he describing a change in God’s inner affect. The universe is not the playground of divine emotion.

The God whom we worship is the Creator of all that is. He is the author of our being. He sustains all things in their existence. He is the source of all good. The work of our salvation does not consist in bringing about desirable emotions in God. We are told that God “is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” If God did not immediately and relentlessly will good for us, then no one would even continue in existence. Being and existence are inherently good things. The very fact that we exist is itself a witness of God’s good will for us.

The Scriptures certainly use the language of emotion when speaking of God, but the language is figurative. Emotions are part of the human condition – and even at that – they are, more often than not, symptoms of our disordered existence.

Anger, for instance, is understood as one of the faculties or energies of the rational soul. It has a proper (unsinful) use in the human soul –  normally as a burst of energy associated with a quick and appropriate response to certain situations. But such an accurate description of human anger has no association with God. And though Christ, the Incarnate Son of God indeed has a human soul, its purpose is not to be understood as supplying the godhead with human emotions.

Wrath is cruel and anger a flood, But who is able to stand before jealousy? (Pro 27:4)

While this accurately describes human beings, and such words are applied to God, God in no way can be described as cruel, etc. Anger is metaphorical. Thus in St. Isaac of Syria:

That we should imagine that anger, wrath, jealousy or such like have anything to do with the divine Nature is something utterly abhorrent for us: no one in their right mind, no one who has any understanding (at all) can possibly come to such madness as to think anything of the sort about God.

(I have read at least one evaluation of St. Isaac’s thought that tried to dismiss it as coming from his supposed Nestorian tendencies. But this is simply incorrect. He speaks here of the Divine Nature and not of Christology. Besides, this is simply proper Orthodox theology.)

In our modern culture, Christian belief has become divorced from the Christian Church (this was an intended outcome of the Reformation). Thus people, self-identified as individuals, struggle to have a “relationship” with God in a manner that is analogous to their “relationships” with other individuals. The nature of these “contractual” events is largely perceived as psychological. How we feel about one another and what we think about one another is seen to be the basis of how we treat one another. And so in our cultural “social contract” we seek to control, even to legislate how we feel about one another. We imagine that eliminating “hate” and “prejudice,” “racism” and “sexism” will impact violence. But despite the unflagging efforts of modernity, violence not only continues but escalates.

With God the “contract” is often extended or renamed a “covenant,” an agreement between a human being and God that stipulates requirements and behaviors and outcomes. Grace, perceived as a divine emotion or attitude, is part of the contract, God’s promised manner of performance.

The result of this imaginary divine milieu has been the gradual decrease of the Church (or anything resembling it). The Church as sacrament and mystery has been replaced by the sentimentality of the individual. People attend Christian assemblies because they “like” them and they encourage them to “feel” good. Teaching is interpreted as learning to manage the “relationship” (contract, emotions, obligations) with God.

This is all interesting – but it is not Christianity. It is “Christian” in the sense that it makes reference to Jesus Christ and accords a divine status to Him. But it is not Christianity, the classical Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, nor is this in any way the same thing as the path traditionally described as “salvation.”

Salvation is not a contract.

Salvation is the work of God within us, transforming us from “glory to glory,” into the image of Christ. As the work of God, it is God Himself in us bringing about this transformation. Our are expected to cooperate with that process. We do this by keeping the commandments of Christ. We do this by living our lives in the communion (koinonia) of the Church. That communion is expressed in a community of love and action, nurtured through the Holy Mysteries of grace (Baptism, Eucharist, Chrismation, Repentance, Marriage, Unction, Ordination, etc.).

How we feel and what we think will often be “all over the map.” As disordered human beings, we frequently feel other than how we should and think other than how we should. This is particularly true given the disordered culture in which we live.

Our union with God is not based or grounded in a divine psychology or in human sentiment. It is grounded in the certain action and work of God. God became man. The “Word became flesh.” How Mary “felt” about that is not information given to us in Scripture, beyond her meek acceptance and adoration of God. We do not get a running commentary of the psychological development of Jesus as a child. Rather we are told simply that He “grew in stature and in wisdom.”

And though there are some revelations regarding the emotions experienced by Christ in His ministry – they are not the stuff of our salvation nor of the salvation of those around Him at the time.

Instead, we are told that the God/Man, Jesus Christ, suffered and died and was raised from the dead for our sake. And though we are told that He loved us (and loves us), it is the divine action of suffering, death and resurrection that save.

For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, (Rom 6:5)

And as this section in Romans makes clear – our union with Christ is through Holy Baptism.

I am not here saying that feelings and thoughts are nothing. The human will is certainly not nothing – it is vital. But the basis of our union with Christ is not at all like the basis of our modern, psychologized social contracts.

The path of true salvation will, in time, bring about the healing and repair of our emotions and thoughts – if we follow that path. That path is clearly presented in the Scriptures and in the Tradition of the Church. The Church is what salvation looks like. There is no “relationship” with God apart from the Church.

We are indeed saved by grace. But we are not saved by false teachings and disordered modern paradigms.

Get out of your mind. Come to your senses. Enter into the household of God.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


97 responses to “Grace and the Psychology of God”

  1. Nicodemus Avatar

    I’m sorry, but this just seems presumptuous. You cannot speak to the experience of God that other Christians are having, since you do not have it.

    You also cannot trap God in the tradition of the Church.

    Orthodoxy is not everywhere, and God will save and relate to whomever He chooses.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is no effort here to trap God in the Church. The Church is God’s creation. It is God who calls the Church the “Pillar and Ground of Truth.”

    And it is not presumptuous to identify false teaching. Far from being presumptuous – I was ordained to do this – for there cannot be true teaching while not identifying false teaching.

    I trust that God is working everywhere to save everyone. That is a settled matter of what He has revealed to us. But the sentimentality and inventions of modern “christianity” are not the creation of God. It is the creation of modern culture. God can and will use anything He chooses: Balaam’s ass and even Orthodox priests. But just because God uses Balaam’s ass doesn’t mean that it’s not still an ass. Nor is it presumptuous to say so.

  3. Nicodemus Avatar

    Identify it, fine. Speak of the joy of Orthodoxy, great! But frankly, most Orthodox I encounter are so dripping with triumphal pride that they have no sense of gentleness or how to speak the truth in love. They have no regard for the people they are speaking to. They have no graciousness and thus make no connection with those they are supposed to be enjoining to the Church.

    I find myself trying to unify with the Orthodox church in spite of these things, but you certainly don’t make it easy! Orthodox don’t give my Protestant friends any slack in regard to their failings, don’t expect the Orthodox to get a free pass just because they are Orthodox.

    Orthodox are virtually a non presence in America. For all their claims to the Kingdom, they weren’t there for me and mine, for generations. I thank God for the non-Orthodox Christians who cared enough for my soul to introduce me to Jesus Christ so that I may be saved and know my Lord and receive His Holy Spirit. I thank God He didn’t wait for the Orthodox to get around to it.

  4. Marina Avatar

    Hello Fr. Stephen,

    I really loved this article. I found it quite liberating. Attributing feelings to God is sometimes I am certainly too familiar with and it creates enormous amounts of anxiety.

    Father, could you explain what makes God’s love different than other emotions attributed to Him in scripture? Is it because it is not a feeling but an action?

    Thank you so much for your inspiring work. I absolutely adore this blog. It is a favourite.

    God fill you with peace and joy.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Again you make presumptions regarding me that are not true. The invention of a sacrament-less Christianity was certainly something of a Reformation goal (divorcing those things from the Church), but this was largely put into effect not by classical Protestantism, but by the rise of 19th century culture-Christian movements. I’ve written elsewhere about that history. A great deal of what I have said here is shared by a number of Protestants. I would direct you to the writings of Stanley Hauerwas. Christianity is in a deep crisis in our period and we have to be quite clear about the nature of the crisis.

    I am glad, for one, that as my Protestant denomination was imploding, there were Orthodox Christians who had suffered for generations to preserve what had been given to them – and have indeed generously shared it. Interestingly, the only place in this article where the word “Orthodox” occurred was in the paragraph that referred to teaching. The article could have been written by a non-Orthodox.

    This is not triumphalism. Orthodoxy is riddled with its own problems and will barely be able to survive the modern period. This is not an article about the rise of some great new salvation. It’s an article about the demise of a once-great heritage and the triumph of psycho-secularism. Thank God there is anywhere we can go to live apart from that nonsense and struggle to raise our children.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Love is indeed an action. But we frequently mistake God’s love for the “love” we know and experience. His love is equally transcendent. “Eye has not seen…ear has not heard…nor has it entered into the mind of man the good things God has prepared for those who love Him.” It is worth noting about our “love” for God that Christ said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.”

  7. Nicodemus Avatar

    I don’t disagree on any of those factual points. I’m just saying, don’t forget the humanity in it. Relating to people is more than relating facts. Humility will get the Orthodox far more mileage than constantly pointing out splinters.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    I appreciate the point. However, the psychologization of the faith is not a splinter. My purpose isn’t to score points – occasionally there is a need to draw the distinction in the clearest possible terms. But kindness is always in order. The culture that suffers from its psycho-social model is not itself responsible for its situation. But it is simply not sufficient to say “this language of relationship is problematic.” That language is so dominant that many people cannot imagine anything else. Therefore the need, as I see it, to raise the ante and make it clear what is at stake. It’s not unkindness.

  9. Nicodemus Avatar

    Fair enough, Father. Your concern is certainly warranted. May we always endeavor, by the grace of God, to the fullness of truth in the meekness of love.

    God bless you on your journeys, and thank you for your indulgence of me. Please forgive me my passion.

  10. Marina Avatar

    Thank you Father!

  11. meshell2001 Avatar

    I found 3 definition of love here, Agape, Eros, and Phila. Each one’s definition is described, and examples from Scripture are given. And at the end of the page it states, “So it is that love as goodness, love as union, love as friendship are all to be found in God and man, between God and man, and between human beings. There is no form of true love which lays outside the realm of the spiritual life.”

    So, are these descriptions of love only metaphorical? Or is our human experience with these kinds of love also our experience of God’s presence? When Scripture says “God is Love (agape)” are we supposed to take this as a metaphor because of the fact that “God does not feel as we do. God does not think as we do?”

  12. meshell2001 Avatar

    On this OCA webpage,, they define and give scriptural examples of agape love, eros love, and phila love, and then go on to say, “So it is that love as goodness, love as union, love as friendship are all to be found in God and man, between God and man, and between human beings. There is no form of true love which lays outside the realm of the spiritual life.”

    So in scripture are we to take “love” as metaphorical? When it says “God is Love (agape)” is love just a metaphor because “God does not feel as we do. God does not think as we do?”

    (Sorry if i have submitted this multiple times. I was having trouble posting this)

  13. meshell2001 Avatar

    An example might help with what Im trying to ask:

    When i was younger (early 20’s, though I looked much younger) i walked into a convenient store scared out of my mind, proceeded to the pharmacy counter where an older woman was working, and purchased a pregnancy test. i must have looked like a terrified teenage girl, because i inspired the most endearing look of compassion from that poor woman. It really made an impression on me, to experience the loving concern of a complete stranger. So my question is did i experience the actual love of God working through that woman? Or was this very human experience (experienced on both mine and her end) just a metaphor/figure of God’s actual love (something we cannot actually know, because God is unknowable)?

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Love as union, as goodness, as friendship are not entirely metaphorical. But love as a “feeling” would be.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is important to remember that “metaphorical” does not mean “not real.” We could also say “analogous,” or something similar. Knowledge of God is by no means impossible – but it generally transcends our ability to express it. St. Paul refers to this when he speaks of his experience of being caught up “to the third level of heaven” and hearing things “unlawful to be uttered.” The deeper the knowledge, the more surrounded it is in silence.

    We are comforted by many things that God inspires or causes to be and sends our way. He is a good God and He truly loves us and wills only good for us. And since we are like children we condescends and allows Himself to be spoken of in ways that are “childish.”

    Our danger is when childish speech becomes elevated to the place of the primary speech of theology. When people begin to equate “being saved” with an emotional experience, for example. This is simply wrong and misleading. It can and does do harm.

    We hear the truth every week in Orthodoxy in the words of St. John Chrysostom who says to God: “for You are God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same.”

  16. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,

    This is truly an excellent article – and a very necessary one. And it provides a good follow-up to your discussion of the penal substitution atonement model which presumes some sort of “wrath” on God’s part.

    Although my question may sound like I’m picking, I am sincerely asking for clarification for what I think is a good reason. I have long noted that the Orthodox uses the term “delusion” in a different manner than psychology and psychiatry do.

    In this article, you suggest that “psychotic delusion” can result from the theological misunderstandings that you so wisely point out. To me, psychotic delusion is a symptom of mental illness, such as believing that the FBI is spying on me through special microchips implanted in the fruit flies on my bananas, for example.

    I doubt that this is what you mean. Part of the reason I am asking is that I notice as I read some of the great Orthodox saints, they make some unusual (to my psychologist mind) attributions about mental illness, e.g. that saying the Jesus Prayer without guidance will cause insanity, split personality, etc. I do not wish to dismiss the wisdom of such holy people, yet I find this confusing. Should no one say the Jesus Prayer without a spiritual guide? (Always good to have a spiritual guide, not always easy to find one.)

    Sorry to go off topic – but I’ve been wanting to ask this for a while and you (unintentionally, I’m sure) gave me an opening. Even a few words of clarification would help.

  17. davidp Avatar

    In Vladimir Lossky´s book, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p 25, he writes about cataphatic & apophatic theology. Cataphatic or positive theology proceeds by affirmations..this leads us to some knowledge of God, but is an imperfect way. Apophatic or negative negations is the perfect way, the only way which is fitting in regard to God. (for example, the uncreated light…we have no idea what it is or what it may look like)

    Being 74 yrs old, I am more amazed to know more about God and the Resurrected Christ by this second way…the apophatic..because I do not have the language to describe my religious experience when partaking, for example, the holy sacraments. Or as such, the grace of God in the article above which man´s psychological tries to define the way it is.

    In one of the Gospel texts last week on Jesus feeding the 5 thousand with bread. The people wanted the food..they wanted to see the miracle(s), they wanted to be full of things that material society gives such as we do today, but in the end they lose out. The greater gift is being changed into the New Adam such as Christ did by His Resurrection. This is what I want and it starts in this life.

  18. Dino Avatar

    What a brilliant article and discussion…!
    even that type os psychotic delusion you describe can be a real danger for someone who enters the Spiritual warfare wrongly and unguided. Demons will use everything available against us once we really start entering that dimension in earnest – most certainly paranoid logismoi based on our ‘feelings’…
    Ok, it is of course true that God ultimately is at the wheel, and if just an inkling of genuine humility is found, it all eventually somehow becomes salvific. It is extremely dangerous though and an experienced guide is usually the NUMBER ONE most helpful element here.
    Even very simple advise for some people is crucial to stop them from accepting an amount of delusion along the way,
    simple things like “it is actually ok” (about something that disconcerts them), or “stop paying attention to that” (about something that they misunderstand as needing attention), or even, “this is from your mind- ignore it”, this is from the devil- ignore it”…
    Ultimately, the greatest delusion is based (as with Eve and Adam) on the true motivation of all spiritual life: man desires to see God, the Uncreated Light, whether he has or has not had this experience in his consciousness. It is what the adversary used as a bait in the beginning, and it is also the true motif behind our struggle for Theosis, However, it is the most dangerous thing too…!
    How do we reconcile the two (wanting and “not wrongly wanting” this) without a very discerning guide?
    This is why we often see the psalmic notion of wanting to be seen by, rather than to see God, being exalted by the Fathers and Mothers of the spiritual life…

    It is also why we “Neptically” do not trust feelings.

  19. Margaret Avatar

    Very interesting, Fr. Stephen, thank you for taking time to write and post this article. I also very much appreciate your comments here in the comment section. Having been raised Protestant with the song “What a friend we have in Jesus” echoing in my mind, and having very happily come into the Orthodox Christian church a few years ago, after Anglican worship for years, I am surprised at how much I still have mentally relied on the psychology of God as you elaborate here. I have enjoyed letting go of a certain amount of emotionalism and I have certainly benefited from the worship and sacramental life encouraged in the Orthodox Church. This article makes things more clear to me — forgive the rambling comment here! Glory to God for all things!

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mary B,
    “Delusion” is a formal term in Orthodoxy. It describes the state of not seeing the truth. Whenever a catechumen is enrolled (even in the catechumenal prayers offered over a child at Baptism) we give thanks for their delivery from “their former delusion.” If knowledge of God is eternal life (John 17:3) then delusion is a very good term for its opposite.

    In the article I used the term “psychotic delusion” in its more medical meaning. Those, of course, are extreme cases. But spending time being concerned about the emotional state of God is indeed delusional and, for those who are unstable, very problematic. Since you are in the field you’re probably aware of what a large percentage of patients in institutions have religious delusions.

    As for the Jesus prayer. It’s use is recommended to all. However, efforts to achieve “self-acting prayer” are not recommended without a guide. St. Ignatius Brianchaninov’s classic book, The Arena, is filled with examples of delusion and even self-destruction by monastics who were not guided, or misguided, etc.

    Orthodoxy considers delusion to be by far the most dangerous and most prevalent spiritual state of man. It is why “nepsis” or “sobriety” is valued pretty much above all things in the spiritual life. Popular forms of Christianity are generally “anti-neptic” preferring instead to make their people as “drunk” as possible on emotion and other delusional states. Some indeed revel in this activity, comparing it to the “9 o’clock in the morning” experience on the day of Pentecost when the people thought the disciples were drunk.

    I would add that the fact that Rome encourages this kind of activity in the charismatic movement and other religious activities is deeply disturbing to the Orthodox. It is disturbing because it seems so pastorally blind. If Rome were at all who she claims to be, then how could she be so blind? This is not pastoral care – it’s bread and circuses – “whatever works.” It troubles me.

    An aside: the FBI spying with fruit flies is apparently not delusional.

  21. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for your thoughtful response. (Thanks also to Dino.)

    While unstable people are always going to be more vulnerable, I do not believe that most people with religious delusions have them as a result of poor theology. (Though it may be different in the monastery, because of the spiritual warfare that is most intense there.) Just as I don’t think that most people with political delusions (FBI) have them because of poor political teaching. They have psychotic delusions because their brains are malfunctioning.

    That being said, I completely agree about the fruitlessness and spiritual danger of imagining God to have emotional states and trying to influence them.

    I appreciate the advice about the Jesus Prayer. I have more questions of a personal nature and I cannot expect you to take them on. If you know anyone who might guide me a bit (within driving distance of Cleveland, Ohio), an e-mail to inform me would be much appreciated.

    I do not believe that the RC is anti-neptic, though I am not blind to our faults, nor do I think it advocates making people drunk on emotion. While certainly my prayer should not be based on emotion, does that mean that I should not accept emotional gifts from God, such as joy? (with appropriate discernment, of course) I ask sincerely, not argumentatively.

  22. PJ Avatar


    This is a very fine article. There is a great need for a spirit of sobriety in modern western Christianity. It brought to mind the warning of Ecclesiastes:

    “Guard your steps
    when you go to the house of God.
    Go near to listen
    rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools,
    who do not know that they do wrong.
    Do not be quick with your mouth,
    do not be hasty in your heart
    to utter anything before God.
    God is in heaven,
    you are on earth,
    so let your words be few.”

    That said, I would point out that the charismatic movement is a complicated phenomenon. It can be a breeding ground of error and delusion. But is this not the case everywhere? There are some remarkable “charismatics.” I’m thinking in particular of Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher for the papal household. His book on the Holy Spirit, built around the Veni Creator Spiritus, is thoroughly patristic. It is quite profound and stirring.


    That particular hymn may be sentimental, but the gist is admirable. The Lord said, “No longer do I call you servants … But I have called you friends.” Friendship with Jesus is joy and peace. Yes, God is utterly transcendent, but in his philanthropy he has assumed a human face. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

    St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “Christ is our wisest and greatest friend. His counsels are supremely useful and becoming.” In his Commentary on John, he underscores St. John’s friendship with Jesus: the Beloved Disciple’s contemplative genius flows from his intimacy with the Lord. He is the Church’s greatest theologian precisely because he is Jesus’ closest friend. He drew near to his humanity, and so encountered his divinity. “John the Evangelist … had drawn the truth about the divinity of the Word from the very fountain-head of the divine breast.”

    Interestingly, St. Thomas understands the virtue of charity — the very foundation of the Christian life — as friendship with God (thus turning Aristotle on his head!). This friendship is based upon God’s gracious communication of his own beatitude. Fr. Jean-Pierre Torrell writes, “God not only wants us to be happy, He wants us to be happy with the happiness with which He Himself is happy.”

    The seed of glory is planted within us in this life, but it blossoms in the next, where we enjoy the direct vision of God, which is the substance of Christian hope. “We shall see him as he is.” This vision is a complete sharing in God’s beatitude.

    Then we shall “rest and see, see and love, love and praise,” as St. Augustine explains. God will be all in all, everything to everyone. He will be the temple in which we dwell and worship, and Christ will be the lamp whose brilliance never fades.

    But in the meant time, on our pilgrimage to this final and ultimate beatitude, we cling to our Friend, who dwells in us through his Spirit.

  23. PJ Avatar


    I don’t mean to butt in, but allow me to venture a thought.

    The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Most of these are not “emotions” in the modern sense. Joy is the satisfaction one spontaneously enjoys in attaining a desired good. This is natural. Now grace does not destroy our nature, but perfects it. That is to say, grace purifies and elevates our intellect and will, ordering them toward God. Those who are in the Spirit do not pursue the goods of the flesh, but the “one needful thing”, God, “who alone is good.” We attain God through faith and charity, especially charity, which brings forth joy in due course. But this joy is not “emotional,” it is spiritual — indeed, it is Spiritual.

  24. marybenton Avatar

    PJ –

    Thank you for a point well-made and expressed.

    I am not particularly defensive of the charismatic movement within Catholicism (it is not my style) but am cautious of generalized dismissal of it as well. I have not always prayed in the same way at different times in my life and God has been gracious and loving toward me nonetheless.

    Perhaps Fr. Stephen knows more about the charismatic in Catholicism than I do (quite likely) but I am not sure all so-called “charismatic” prayer is the same (from Catholic to Protestant variations).

    Certainly we must seek God alone – never the emotions in and of themselves. And joy is much more than an emotion (as you indicated, PJ). Yet we are flesh-and-blood emotional creatures by nature and to feel or express emotion within our prayer does not seem inherently objectionable to me. Please correct me if I am mistaken, Fr. Stephen.

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    “is this not the case everywhere?” No. But I have experience with the charismatic movement. It’s most fundamental assumptions are simply flawed and delusional – It does not mean that there aren’t fine Christians within it – but – frankly – that is in spite of the movement and its teachings.

    Mary, I disagree. Rome is not neptic and has long encouraged too many “enthusiasms.” The spiritual life of Hesychasm (quiet and nepsis) are not schools of spirituality in Orthodoxy. They are Orthodoxy. As such, Orthodoxy would critique as flawed every “spirituality” that is not neptic or born of Hesychasm. The Hesychast Councils of the 14th century declared this as definitive Orthodox doctrine. In the centuries since, their wisdom has been confirmed repeatedly.

    PJ, to be “happy with the happiness with which he is happy” is an excellent statement. Such “happiness” would be ineffable and as much beyond what I presently know as “happy” as God Himself is beyond me.

    It is the absence of apophaticism, of the proper regard for the Truth of Who God Is – and therefore of the reality and beatitude that await us – that makes the sentimentality of much modern Christianity so tawdry and useless.

  26. James Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    I haven’t seen you state outright, but does Orthodoxy allow for times in a believers life to really intimately “hear from God” not just in the midst of the Sacraments, but also in times of individual prayer, solitude and devotion? I too come from a charismatic background where people seemed to thrive on telling me what they sensed God was telling them about me. I was often, but not always skeptical. It just struck me as their own “self talk”, but I wouldn’t want to go to the other extreme where I should expect to never hear His still small voice. Any thoughts would be great. Thanks!

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think there is certainly room for such things. Though quite cautiously. For one thing, the insanity of the “will of God for my life” is a product of our Western individualism. Mostly, what God wants for our lives is to keep the commandments of Christ. But the other has this incredible trajectory that is just madness.

    I would stress far more the experience of communion. This is and should be fairly common among believers. But communion is the also in the world of “lovers.” Words get in the way.

    I am way more than skeptical about what God tells other people about me. I try to stay away from such people or get them to go to therapy. There is so much psychological junk hidden in such things (projections, etc.). For a public figure whose life is also that of an “icon” (priesthood) it’s not unusual for people to have all kinds of crazy things running around in their heads about me. Strangers in restaurants, shopping malls, etc., seem compelled to tell me what God is saying in their head about me, etc.

    Christ wouldn’t tell Peter what His will was for St. John. Why should He tell someone else something about me?

    No. These things are deeply delusional and frequently dangerous. Flee.

  28. […] (Grace and the Psychology of God) […]

  29. Dean Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for your continued wise counsel. Had I only been able to have read forty years ago what you are writing now. Of course, forty years ago you would not have written it either.:o) However, it is all of life’s experiences that have brought us to where we are now and for that I am grateful.

  30. marybenton Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I have been pondering something that triggers a somewhat less than pleasant response in me, despite my feeling that most of what I read here is brilliant.

    I would add that the fact that Rome encourages this kind of activity in the charismatic movement and other religious activities is deeply disturbing to the Orthodox.

    I have been a RC for 58+ years and I have never experienced “Rome” (which I consider to be a city, not the seat of my faith) to have encouraged me to be involved in the charismatic movement. Years ago (30+), I was invited once to a meeting by an acquaintance, went and didn’t return. End of story.

    Also, you wrote:

    Rome is not neptic and has long encouraged too many “enthusiasms.”

    I do not think that the Catholic Church or its leadership opposes nepsis, only that it does not practice it as consistently or define it as centrally as do the Orthodox. (A flaw of ours, of course, but there are many Catholic who practice it, though they would not know it by this name.)

    I also do not see the RCC as “encouraging” too many enthusiasms as much as perhaps not reigning in some unhealthy practices that develop in its very large and diverse constituency. Again, a flaw to be concerned about but a different thing than actively promoting wild or heretical practices.

    I understand that you may wish to educate people about how Orthodoxy differs from Catholicism. However, my experiences as a Catholic often do not match some of your broader generalizations about “Rome”. Hence, if I were not already immensely fond of you and your blog 🙂 I might turn away from reading further. (That sense of Orthodox triumphalism again…)

    However, I know better and so I’m afraid you’re stuck with me for a while longer…

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It. Is quite difficult to write about the Orthodox experience in a culture that does not share the same epistemological and theological grounding. Comparison and contrast is often used but it has its limits.

    It becomes even less useful the more nuanced explanations become and the further they explore different ground.

    I have often had the experience of people to whom I am talking say “Oh youare just like the Catholics in either a dismissive manner or in an generally affirming but thoughtless manner.

    I have talked with many Catholics over the years. I must say you and the others who post here are the first I’ve found who talk of their faith with awe, reverence and intelligence. I am learning much to my benefit. Thank you.

  32. Joseph Jude Avatar
    Joseph Jude

    As Michael stated above, the Orthodox had little to no voice in this or most western countries even till today. Many of these groups have had to give up their ,”own” culture to fit in; the Orthodox faith is very often all they have left. In my experience growing up catholic,( I have been Orthodox for 10 years) I politely disagree with your view of the Roman Catholic Church. I might add that Rome does change( Think about the recent Mass translations). The new offertory in the Roman Liturgy (Vatican 2) is very new, right at the center of the Roman Liturgy; so Rome does change quite often. Seeing the collapse of Catholic culture, I can only feel bad for what so many Catholics had to experience to their once noble Liturgy. The new Roman Liturgy was forced on them from above, with little say from the average catholic.
    As a side note the older Roman Liturgy lead me to the study of history and the Orthodox faith. I will pray for you!
    Joseph Jude

  33. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Michael – Thank you for your gracious words.

    Joseph Jude – I think perhaps you misunderstood me (?). Or perhaps I do not understand your comment. I agree that the RCC has made changes (would be rather hard to deny) and some have been a challenge to obedience. I am also admitting that the RCC has flaws, some of them quite serious. I am not arguing that it is better than Orthodoxy. In fact, I am not arguing anything at all.

    I think it sad that most Catholics, including myself up until about two years ago, know almost nothing about Orthodoxy. Many Catholics, even those who are bright and otherwise educated, think of Orthodoxy as an “ethnic” thing. I remember being quite puzzled when I met someone who was Puerto Rican and identified his religion as Orthodox. It didn’t compute.

    I frequently speak to my Catholic family and friends of what I am learning in my reading of Orthodoxy and I find that most are at least politely interested and some enthusiastically. Even the Catholic priests I talk to show interest and none have suggested that I stop pursuing this grace-filled learning.

    I appreciate your prayers and I am glad if you have found your home in Orthodoxy. I have no complaint to make: God has loved me with His abundant mercy, ever evident to me in the Sacraments, Holy Scripture, dear communities of faith and the ministry I am blessed to carry out.

    May the minor tensions of our dialogues here help us grow. May we praise Him at all times.

  34. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Also mary we are mad at the Catholics and have been for a very long time. Certainly Cardinal Humbert was less than peaceful at the time he laid the Bull of excommunication on the altar of Hagia Sophia.

    Our anger takes many forms but it is a cover for our sadness that we are not together.

    May God forgive us.

  35. Albert Avatar

    Another view from Rome: what I found the first time I attended a Divine Liturgy three years ago at St._____ Orthodox church was a very deep sense of reverence everywhere,from the front door to the entrance from the “porch” to the icons and candle stands and throughout the service with numerous bowing and crossing. This was something I had not witnessed (except in a few cases of priests who tried so hard that they may actually have been misunderstood and perceived as over-performing) or even experienced–my own fault–at RC Masses. What surprised me even more was that this sense of reverence among the people seemed to be routine, almost perfunctory, without losing its importance. No flamboyance, no exaggerated expressions of personal piety. Very “sober” but not dry or lifeless either.

    Later, after many months of attending and conferring privately with the priest, I realized that there are a number of reasons for the difference in tone and attitude, but the main one seems to me to be the Orthodox understanding of our distance from God (through sin, to be sure, but also through God’s being beyond all knowing), but also His closeness through communion. I don’t think Rome stresses enough, or maybe at all, the first part–our distance from God. There doesn’t seem to be a sense of mystery at Mass. On the other hand, the rather informal and assembly-line approach to communion does not emphasize Christ’s closeness either. Certainly many Catholic individuals experience, or at least believe in, both the closeness and the distance. Most priests probably do too. I’m thinking here in general terms and about personal experience. The reverence has rekindled my faith.

  36. Dino Avatar

    someone I once met who knows these matters more intimately than any of us is Father Placide Desseille. He basically went from being a outstanding Catholic Abbot to an outstanding Orthodox one, helped in part by the influence of the Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra along the way.
    He began as a Trappist hieromonk and ended up being baptised on the Holy Mountain in the waters in front of Simonopetra.
    His book in Greek “Ανατολική και Δυτική Χριστιανοσύνη” [Eastern and Western Christendom], trans. Sotiris Gounelas (Athens: Armos, 2004). explains a great deal of this discussion from the inside.

    the absence in the West of a distinction between the imparticipable divine essence and the uncreated energies, energies that are an eternal radiance of this essence and the divine life that is communicated to creatures, will always leave the Orthodox with the impression that Western Christianity is continually suspended between a pantheistic confusion between God and man on the one hand, and on the other a purely metaphorical interpretation of theosis, which deprives it of its real content and demotes the spiritual life to a life of lofty ethics.

  37. Brian Avatar

    When I was a child I had a relationship with my father, though I couldn’t have told you much of the ‘dogma’ of my father – what color his eyes were, how tall he was (He was just “big” to me), when or where he was born, what he did while he was at work, what his level of education was, whether or not he served in the armed forces… and the list of things I neither knew nor understood about my father goes on. Nevertheless, I knew him – personally. To this day there are doubtless many things I do not know about my father, and yet I know him.

    Even though I knew next to nothing about my father, yet if a stranger had come to me claiming to be my father I would have recognized instantly that he was an imposter. I couldn’t have explained to anyone exactly how; I would have “just known” because I knew my father.

    My mother could have explained that the imposter’s eyes were blue while my father’s are brown; that he was too tall to be my father; that he didn’t know the things my father knows; that his hands didn’t bear the marks of his occupation, etc. In other words, my mother had far more knowledge of the ‘dogma’ of my father than I did. Yet even she would have relied far less on dogma to identify an imposter than she would on the simple fact that she knew my father.

    This is emphatically NOT an argument against dogma. Quite the contrary. But it does help to illustrate the limits – and even in some respects the scandal – of dogma. That we require dogmas demonstrates how little we actually know God. There are, I suspect, many who know God while knowing very little about Him – even perhaps while having some mistaken notions about Him. Others seem to know every detail of true doctrine while knowing little of God Himself. If our Orthodox Faith teaches us anything it is that the knowledge of God is personal, that knowledge of God comes not from knowing about Him, but from knowing Him through love. In fact, the more we know Him the more we realize how little we know about Him.

    Dogmas are important. But they are little more than road signs that, if followed, ensure that we are coming to know the true God rather than an imposter. Even so, God is not known by dogmas. He is known personally, and this personal knowledge is revealed through the Church, the people in whom He dwells who He has united to Himself. My younger brother who has Downs Syndrome loves God with a blessed abandon, often shaming me with the purity of his faith. While he has very little knowledge of dogma, he has far greater knowledge of God than many of us do with all our extensive knowledge about Him.

    I am by no means ambivalent about Orthodox Truth or practice. There are reasons His Church has given us dogmatic definitions and prescriptions to guide and keep us in the true Faith. Real belief (as opposed to mere mental assent) and the practice of that belief have consequences in terms of our salvation. Nevertheless, I believe these thoughts are worth pondering as a sort of balance when we consider the meaning of heresy or what it means to ‘understand’ the dogmas about God and the finer points of theology or soteriology. Our Faith is in God the Father, His only Begotten Son, and the Holy Spirit in whom we are united. It does not consist of knowing facts about Him. To believe otherwise is to deny that the simple can know Him, yet clearly they can and do with a purity of heart far greater than most – certainly than mine.

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

    We ‘understand’ only what can be understood, and even that is by faith. The rest is a mystery beyond our understanding that can nevertheless be known by participation. It is not something we create by our right belief, but something that is graciously given to us as a gift.

    I cannot speak for Mary, but I suspect that in the Orthodox Faith she recognizes the God she already knows, notwithstanding the dogmas or practices that may differ from what she has known heretofore. At least that is the way it was for me many years ago. God forbid that my heart should be filled with triumphalism, thinking that because I “have found the true Faith…” it was my own doing; and now I am ‘more right’ than everyone else. For in truth it is the Faith that found me.

  38. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    I do not have the wisdom or knowledge to contrast the deeper theologies of Orthodox vs RC. I am but a soul in search of God (and much delighted by the great love He has shown me).

    I am saddened by what I see in many corners of the RCC: a hierarchy that I suspect has been infiltrated by evil (though many are good) and a laity that has been largely lulled into spiritual sloth (though certainly not all).

    Since most of us do not understand Orthodoxy, with some education, we may learn a great deal from you – if your anger toward our historical institution does not get in the way. While you might think it best that we all become Orthodox (and perhaps you are right), the greater goal, in my mind, is to inspire our hearts with the desire to know and love God more deeply.

    Thus, my unpleasant reactions to broad generalization about “Rome” or “the West”… While some of them seem inaccurate to me, I may be wrong. I recognize, Fr. Stephen, that you may know more about the teachings of my Church than I do – since you are a scholar of such things and I am not. Thus it would be helpful if you could cite the source (for example, a Pope, Vatican Council, or other formal teaching that “encourages” the charismatic movement).

    Otherwise, I am left feeling that you may be simply reacting out of an impression or (gasp) something that you have read in the popular media. (I am not trying to argue about any of these things as issues – I don’t care that much about them actually – but am rather sharing how it feels when I perceive my faith community being critiqued with broad and perhaps inaccurate generalizations.)

  39. Nicodemus Avatar

    This, I resonate with. This is the God I know who is calling me to Orthodoxy. This is the truth manifest in humble love.

    Thank you, Brian.

  40. FJE Avatar

    The relationship between true doctrine and knowledge of God is revealed by the teaching that the theologian is the one who prays. Dogma it seems to me is both a condition for and a result of true knowledge. The truth about God (dogma) is revealed by the Holy Spirit and is expressed in true worship which unites us with God as He is. Those united with God have knowledge of God and speak about Him authentically.

  41. Michelle (formerly meshell2001) Avatar
    Michelle (formerly meshell2001)

    “I cannot speak for Mary, but I suspect that in the Orthodox Faith she recognizes the God she already knows, notwithstanding the dogmas or practices that may differ from what she has known heretofore. At least that is the way it was for me many years ago.” -Brian

    This is the way it was for me too. I was not raised as a Christian (I started searching for God at around 17 yrs old) and to be honest living in an American Protestant culture, and having been mentally submersed within and shaped by this culture all my life, I almost feel as though I needed to enter Christianity through the atmosphere of “touchy freely, personal-relationship, be a friend of Jesus, all you have to do is say this prayer…” and other “false teachings and disordered modern paradigms” as Fr. Stephens calls them (because that was the polluted air I was breathing anyway). The strong, clean, foreign air of Orthodoxy may have been to big of a shock for my polluted system. It wouldn’t have made sense to my Americanized mind. I feel like maybe I was eased into Orthodoxy for a good reason. So I guess my point is that like Brian said, even in the Protestant Church I still recognized and knew who my Father was, because the ability to know my Father in the first place “is not something we create by our right belief, but something that is graciously given to us as a gift.” God is humble. He enters into the murky waters of our sin laden culture, even into our false teachings and modern paradigms, to pluck us out and free us.

  42. Karen Avatar

    Brian, beautifully expressed. That was my experience of Jesus in my Methodist Sunday School (in N. Ireland) as a child, too. Thank you!

  43. Fr. Hilarion Avatar
    Fr. Hilarion

    I give thanks to Our Lord God JESUS, for your Blog Father Stephen. There is only one CHRIST JESUS, not one for every Faith. For those who think they can take the Holy Scriptures and change them for their life styles are in SIN. He who speaks of the Lord JESUS, and proclaims Him, should praised and be thanked. Praise be to you Father Stephen and your good work.

  44. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think Brian’s take is quite accurate – in particular his comments to Mary – that she sees what she already knows. This I think is deeply true.

    And it’s more than likely that someone might read my critical remarks in a spirit they are not intended.

    There is much in both the Roman Catholic Church and in many Protestant groups that have depth and truth. I first came to know Christ in a Baptist Church as a little child. That relationship has changed in many ways over my lifetime, but the subject of that relationship is and always has been the same. It is “that” Jesus whom I know. I would even say that the Christ whom I knew in the years of charismatic experience is and was the same Jesus.

    But my reflection and criticism is about things, beliefs and practices that endangered and obscured that true knowledge.

    My comments viz. the Roman Church and the charismatic movement reflect the fact that there is a Cardinal with specific responsibilities towards that movement – it is a movement whose presence is acknowledged and encouraged. I think this was a pastoral decision on the part of the Pope (and bishops) to pastor something rather than try and condemn it. My experience (and I’ve spent a fair amount of time around Catholic charismatics) is that the pastoral end of things and teaching should be much stronger and far more critical of certain practices. I am concerned about a toleration for things that I perceive to be spiritually dangerous (as is the judgment of the ORthodox Church). There were efforts in the 60’s and 70’s in Florida by a Greek priest to foster an Orthodox charismatic movement. It got no traction.

    But these things tend to come and go. I think the charismatic stuff is actually waning. There is certainly a growing interest within Roman Catholicism for more traditional approaches. It’s most welcome.

  45. Anastasios Avatar

    Well, what about this?

    Apparently it was founded in Florida in 1998 and has no ties to other churches (Orthodox or not). (I’m always puzzled with groups like this. I take it they don’t understand the concept of apostolic succession? The idea that you can start your own church from scratch if you want is, needless to say, not Orthodox).

  46. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    An interesting conversation…

    Brian, I appreciate very much the metaphor you used in discussing the contrast between dogma and personal knowledge of God.

    Let me take it a step further. Several years ago, before my parents’ health had declined so much, my brother and I invited each parent to record an informal one hour interview about their lives (based loosely on NPR’s StoryCorps). My brother guided them through with some general questions and we are now blessed with a recording of each of them relating a bit of their life history. (This is a wonderful thing to do, by the way.)

    The first time I listened to the recordings, of course I recognized my mom and dad – their voices, speech patterns and familiar life stories. But then, every once in a while, each of them said something that took me a little by surprise. It wasn’t totally new information but more a reflection on a time in their lives that gave me a new perspective on who they were as people – apart from being my mom or my dad.

    It was like something clicked into sharper focus. I imagine if we had taken this further, going more in depth over a longer period of time, much more might have clicked into place – I would know and understand them even better.

    That describes what my encounter with Orthodoxy has been like (in reading books and this blog). The God I knew and loved prior to this was not only recognized but clicked (and continues to click) into sharper focus so that I come to know and understand Him more and more.

    I might note that this experience is not limited to my encounter with Orthodoxy. I experience it with other reading, conversations and situations. It is because it happens so often (and so beautifully) here and in reading the Orthodox saints that I keep coming back for more.

    “Let me seek him whom my soul loves.” (Song of Songs 3:2)

    What could be more important to me than this? May we seek Him sincerely with all of our hearts. May God be merciful (as we know He is), protecting us from delusion and forgiving our sins and errors, until at last we are fully united to Him.

  47. Drewster2000 Avatar


    I also very much appreciate your perspective on the God we all know and love. There will always be a need for balance in our lives. We need dogma and beliefs; they guide our steps. But sometimes we can get so caught up in the details of how to travel on this journey that we forget about our destination, the object of our love and devotion.

    One eye must be kept on our path but the other on our Jesus. If we do that we can avoid many pitfalls (on the one hand), but also begin to reflect the light from His face to those around us (on the other hand).

  48. Drewster2000 Avatar

    I feel impelled to share this. I have recently found a modern example of true joy. Because this seems to be so rare, especially on a grand scale, I offer it here.

    Pharrell Williams wrote a song called “Happy” not long ago. Well the world has picked it up and city after city is submitting its own YouTube video of people dancing to the song. I’ve watched a number of them. It is as if in each instance they took a 5-minute break from their brokenness and their imperfections to stop and celebrate joy.

    I would not ask any of these people to share their theology concerning happiness, but their pure, unadulterated expression of it in the videos is enough to make me cry. To know that people in this world still have the capacity to reflect God in such ways is enough to brighten my day, probably my month – and maybe even my life.

    I know that this joy they show comes from God. I know this because there is only one Source of joy; it cannot be faked or recreated by evil or any other. I know that there is only one true God which we all serve. I know this because of the love that we share one with another – not all the time, but in moments when the clouds part and we begin to remember what we were created to be, His children.

    Thanks be to God!

  49. fatherstephen Avatar

    Drewster and Brian,
    I will poke my nose in for a minute – to speak against “balance.” Balance always implies two things that are in tension and the need to balance their forces.

    There is no tension in God, nor, as a consequence, in the work of God in our lives. There is no “balance” in the spiritual life. It is a term for which I can think of no Patristic word. It’s just not there. Truth told, it’s a modern concept (let’s blame Hegel).

    Dogma, doctrine, for example, is not actually something to be balanced against love and devotion, or something else. The problem is a wrong holding of doctrine and dogma. We hold it in a manner that distorts it and isolates from the rest of our life or in which it becomes something other than what it is.

    Dogma has been called a “verbal icon” of Christ (Florovsky). If it is held in the proper manner it illuminates the rest of our life and produces joy and love. Only when we turn it into a cypher for something else do we make of dogma something other than what it is.

    That’s my morning contribution…

  50. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I knew it! I knew you’d say something like this. (grin)

    There is no tension in God but there certainly is in our lives. As Martin Luther said, living the spiritual life is often like a drunken man mounting his horse from one side, only to fall off the other.

    The tension specific to this conversation is between watching to make sure you do everything right, and the actual doing of those things. What comes to mind is Jesus telling the disciples that their righteousness would have to be better than the Pharisees if they were going to make it into the Kingdom of Heaven – and then turning to tell them that they need to be like the children.

    Children often seem to instinctively know how to love and relate and express things like joy with abandon and do it so much better than their adult counterparts. As they grow up, life gets more complicated in this fallen world and they start learning the necessary rules in order to correct the places where instinct fails us (seemingly everywhere).

    Adults are in danger of changing their focus to things like: passions, rules, weaknesses, other people, other gods, and so on. So perhaps what I’m trying to say that dogma is right and good and necessary – as long as it doesn’t replace God Himself. One could say the same thing for emotions, spontaneity, unity and everything else.

    I find that my whole life is indeed a perpetual mounting of the right road, only to be pulled off to the other side by something else. Surely you also feel this tension in your life, though you might phrase it differently.

    Another blog post opportunity…..

  51. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Dogma occurs in the head. Love occurs in the heart.

    Ideally, there is no tension. However, we humans are less than ideal.

    One can know little of dogma (or be incorrect on its finer points) and still love purely and selflessly, united to Christ.

    I very much doubt, on the other hand, that one can live united to Christ without love, even it one understands dogma perfectly.

    Thus, I “seek Him whom my soul loves”. It is good and helpful to gain a better understanding of dogma and doctrine – but the details don’t seem so vital to me in light of the former.

  52. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mary Benton, et al
    No. Dogma does not occur in the head. The Elder Sophrony (soon to be canonized, we think) spoke of what he called “Dogmatic Consciousness” which is utterly beyond the head. It is the proper perception of dogma through the nous. Only love sees the truth.

  53. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,

    This appears to be another one of those occasions when your use of a word differs a bit from the common parlance, I think. And I am but a commoner.

    My understanding of dogma (common use) is that it is an official system of beliefs or teachings, such as those authorized by a church authority. I am wondering if what you (and the holy Elder) are referring to is more what I might speak of as “truth” (revealed, not something a bunch of people discussed and agreed upon as true).

    The former happens in the head and is what I was referring to. The latter is utterly beyond the head. And utterly beyond me – and all of us, but for the grace of God. Or am I still missing your point?

  54. fatherstephen Avatar

    The definition is the same. But the Elder understands dogma in its true and mystical reality. Most only grasp dogma with the intellect (rationality). But there is a way of grasping it and being grasped by it in which it is actually transforming, vivifying and sanctifying. The more truly we grasp dogma in this manner, the less we are able to use it to bludgeon others, etc.

    Think of it like this – dogma as a verbal icon of Christ. Could you imagine how wrong it would be to take an icon of Christ and use it as a weapon to injure someone?

    It is a deeper perception of dogma. True knowledge is always participation.

  55. Yannis Avatar

    The “official” dogmata of the Church are a distillation of Her life, from the pure and selfless love of the Saints and their union to Christ. They are not a different sort of stuff. And we can see (hear?) dogmata spoken directly by Saints who had no education themselves – union to Christ is union to Truth.
    Maybe what you call dogma we should rather call “the intellectual apprehension of the expression of dogma”. Understanding what a dogma is saying is not the same as having that dogma. Dogma is had by the heart.

  56. Ian Attila Avatar
    Ian Attila

    Fr. Stephen

    What do you think about Fr. Thomas Hopko’s talk, The Wrath of God Part 2.

    I am right in thinking on this issue, you two are not on the same page?

  57. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thank you for the clarifications, Fr. Stephen and Yannis.

    What I was trying to express is that the word “dogma”, in its common usage, does not belong solely to the Orthodox.

    In common use, one who is not RC might say that papal infallibility is a false dogma/doctrine, i.e. an incorrect teaching. This might be said without bludgeoning but simply as a point of discussion. It would be proper English, whether or not one agrees with the statement.

    This use of the term “dogma” does indeed take place in the head. When I wrote early, it was the only use of the term with which I was familiar.

    Understanding the deeper meaning the term has in Orthodoxy, I am edified and appreciate the understanding given.

  58. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Hmmmm…but how tricky it is to know which meaning of “dogma” someone is using – even from one sentence to the next – and how often people have been bludgeoned with the mental kind.

  59. fatherstephen Avatar

    Fr. Thomas and I are on the same page. I know Fr. Thomas personally and have for some time. I hold him in the greatest esteem and would gladly accept correction from him as far more competent than myself. But I think the differences are not really there. If Fr. Thomas and I sat down for a face-to-face conversation on the topic, where we could carefully parse our terms, I have no doubt of our agreement.

    Frankly, I think that he and I are having two very different conversations and that this is what at work. My conversation on the topic has largely been one of “confrontation” with the distortions caused mostly the the PSA. It is thus fairly pointed at certain segments within Protestant thought. I have more experience in that area than Fr. Thomas – my being a former Protestant.

    He is addressing a different conversation. We are in deep agreement about the nature of the uncompromising character of the love of God.

    I have not listened to part 2. I’ll see if I can find the time. I do know that Fr. Thomas, several years back, was somehow intrigued with the Semitic (Syrian, etc.) use of language versus the more Hellenistic. I recall a conversation about the Prayer of St. Ephraim that rotated around that topic. It is, from time to time, quite frightening in its imagery. And I heard a concern in him that we not lose the power of such language. I would agree. But in the work and conversation in which I’m engaged, I find it necessary to draw very careful and sharp divisions on the topic. How St. Ephraim can mean something and how a Calvinist, using the language of St. Ephraim can mean something, are two very different things. In Part 1, Fr. Thomas was unequivocal in his condemnation of the PSA.

    “Legal” is problematic. I think Fr. Tom and I use the term in a slightly different manner. Again, if he and I were to parse the terms carefully, I think we would be in agreement.

    I do not think that the “Law” and the things associated with it, are at all “legal” in the way that term is used in the modern West, for example. Law does not work at all in the same way. The failure to make that distinction leads to confusion. It is something I would press Fr. Tom on were we in a conversation on the topic.

  60. fatherstephen Avatar

    On the blog, we are pressing towards a deeper goal of understanding – moving towards the mysteries. My use of dogma is generally confined to how it is used in its qualified Orthodox sense rather than general parlance.

  61. TimOfTheNorth Avatar

    (It seems that an earlier attempt to post here got lost. I don’t believe my post was out of line, but if it was, please forgive me and help me understand where I offended.)

    I appreciate the thrust of this post. The idea of “managing God’s emotions” certainly resonates with me. It’s a business I wish to get out of! But the question remains how shall I understand (and profit from) the verses that present a very anthropomorphic view of God’s reactions (emotions?). Take Psalm 2. What does Scripture mean when it says that God “holds them in derision” or instructs us to “kiss the Son, lest he be angry”? Or from my reading last night of Ezekiel 16:42: “So I will lay to rest My fury toward you, and My jealousy shall depart from you. I will be quiet, and be angry no more.” Granting that these passages in their fuller context may be understood Christologically and thus redemptively, I still wonder why God chose to use such heavily emotional and psychological language. Why does He present Himself this way if these concepts are so subject to misunderstanding and error? More practically, how ought I to read and understand and apply these images?

  62. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m not aware of having pulled any of your posts. I’ve been inundated with Spam lately – (it goes through a “spam filter”). I’m running from 300-1000 pieces a day. That means that when a normal comment accidentally gets caught in the spam filter – it happens to almost everyone – it is impossible for me to comb through and rescue it. Sorry for the hassle.

    On the imagery. Though I fear some will take me for a liberal in saying this – God used that imagery because it’s the only imagery that the writers and readers of the time prior to the revelation of God in Christ understood. There are plenty of “primitive” images in the OT – even some occasional imagery that is less than monotheistic. The OT must be read in a Christian manner. That is not the same thing as a purely historical or purely literal manner. It must be read Christologically – figuratively at times – but this is true of everything in the world. The world is iconic.

    One of the points I work hard on in my writing is driven by the fact that Scripture can be read in a figurative manner. It raises the question: what does it say about Scripture that this is even possible? And then I move this to the point that this is not only true of Scripture, but of the world itself. Sacrament is not something foreign to the world – sacrament and icon reveal the true nature of things.

    Thus, learning to deal with the passages in a proper manner also helps us deal with the world (and ourselves) in a proper manner.

  63. marybenton Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    God used that imagery because it’s the only imagery that the writers and readers of the time prior to the revelation of God in Christ understood.

    Very well put. Thank you.

  64. John Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    “God used that imagery because it’s the only imagery that the writers and readers of the time prior to the revelation of God in Christ understood.”

    I have heard this before – Fr. Alexander Men, himself a first-rate scholar, held that God revealed himself to mankind gradually, almost in phases, based on what the people of each successive time period were able to comprehend. But – is this idea in any of the Fathers? If so, which ones? Any thoughts or citations you had would be appreciated!

  65. Nicodemus Avatar

    My concern about embracing any kind of “progressive revelation” is that wouldn’t it then lend some credence to the idea that Protestant theology is legitimate as “progressive revelation” about God?

  66. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’ll work at tracking down some citations. But the idea is frankly rather common. For one, both St. Maximus and St. Ambrose describe the OT as “Shadow,” the NT as “Icon,” and the Eschaton as “Truth.” Read Eugen Pentiuc’s new book on the Fathers and the OT. It’s got lots of stuff. But it’s important to say that the “figures” or “shadows” of the OT contain and reveal the truth. That are not the shadows of error.

  67. fatherstephen Avatar

    This is not “progressive” revelation. It’s simply the obvious case that until the coming of Christ – nothing was clear. St. Paul Himself said there was a “veil” over the OT. Only Christ removes the veil. But Christ is the revelation. There is no “progress” beyond Christ.

  68. fatherstephen Avatar

    I will write more on this soon, since I think it is badly understood. First, revelation itself does not belong to the general category of information, available to mere rationality – and it never has. So, there is not and could never be a “progressive” revealing of clearer and clearer rational information. Christ as the Truth is discerned, perceived, as a mystery made known. Even in the NT, in the resurrection appearances, He is not purely “rationally” perceived. Eyes and understanding must be opened. This applies to everything. There is a reason we speak of being “illumined.”

    The fault of Protestantism, and all modern rationalities, including a certain kind of modern ersatz Orthodoxy, is that it thinks and wants things in an unillumined state.

    Without illumination, we do not understand even the most obvious things. Everything is a figure, sign and symbol. If the fathers fail to say this at every moment it’s only because they not only know it, but actually expect their readers to know it. It is always assumed.

  69. PJ Avatar

    Last night, I was reading St. Ephraim’s “Hymns on Paradise.” I came upon these enlightening lines, which concern the description of the garden in Genesis, but are applicable to all Scripture.

    For him who would tell of it
    there is no other means
    but to use the names
    of things that are visible,
    thus depicting for his hearers
    a likeness of things that are hidden.
    For if the Creator
    of the Garden
    has clothed His majesty
    in terms that we can understand,
    how much more can His Garden
    be described with our similes?

    If someone concentrates his attention solely
    on the metaphors used of God’s majesty,
    he abuses and misrepresents that majesty
    and thus errs
    by means of those metaphors
    with which God clothed Himself for his benefit,
    and he is ungrateful to that Grace
    which stooped low
    to the level of his childishness;
    although it has nothing in common with him,
    yet Grace clothed itself in his likeness
    in order to bring him to the likeness of itself.

    Do not let your intellect
    be disturbed by mere names,
    for Paradise has simply clothed itself
    in terms that are akin to you;
    it is not because it is impoverished
    that it has put on your imagery;
    rather, your nature is far too weak
    to be able
    to attain to its greatness,
    and its beauties are much diminished
    by being depicted in the pale colors
    with which you are familiar.

  70. PJ Avatar

    When reading the Scriptures, I always bear in mind the words of St. Thomas: “The letter, even of the Gospel, would kill unless there were the inward presence of the healing grace of faith.”

  71. fatherstephen Avatar

    PJ, et al
    This is typical, particularly in the writings of the more “mystical” fathers. And I have seen such statements (without making careful note of them) for the 40 years that I’ve been reading the fathers. Therefore, I am sometimes dismayed when someone offers a challenge looking for chapter and verse in the fathers on such things. It’s everywhere – particularly if you reading in the right fathers. The Cappadocians, especially St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Maximus, St. Isaac, St Ephrem, to name but a few. But, it is actually ubiquitous.

  72. PJ Avatar

    I also think of St. Augustine’s sage advice: “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception.”

    Indeed, St. Augustine went so far as to declare, “And thus a man who is resting upon faith, hope and love, and who keeps a firm hold upon these, does not need the Scriptures except for the purpose of instructing others. Accordingly, many live without copies of the Scriptures, even in solitude, on the strength of these three graces. “

  73. jrj1701 Avatar

    PJ are you using the Sebastion Brock translation for St. Ephrem the Syrian “Hymns on Paradise. If so, what page is your excerpt on. Thanks in advance.

  74. PJ Avatar

    I am, but I don’t have the book on me right now. I’ll check later. It’s in the middleish of the text.

  75. Daniel Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, regarding your comment from May 8 at 10:13 AM, are you saying that those of us who are non-Orthodox, but rather inquirers should not pray the Jesus Prayer.

    I may be wrong, but I seem to recall that in past posts/comments, you have indicated that it is permissible/advisable TO pray the prayer.

  76. fatherstephen Avatar

    By no means! I said, “It should be encouraged for all…” It is the attempt to achieve “self-acting” prayer, as described in the Way of the Pilgrim and the Philokalia that should not be attempted without a spiritual father or some qualified sort. But pray the prayer by all means.

  77. PJ Avatar

    Excuse the length of his selection, but we cannot discuss Biblical interpretation without quoting the great Origen.

    From “On First Principles,” Book IV, 16 – 19:

    “Seeing that [some] events which lie on the surface [of Scripture] can be neither true nor useful, we may be led to the investigation of that truth which is more deeply concealed, and to the ascertaining of a meaning worthy of God in those Scriptures which we believe to be inspired by Him…

    Now who is there, pray, possessed of understanding, that will regard the statement as appropriate, that the first day, and the second, and the third, in which also both evening and morning are mentioned, existed without sun, and moon, and stars— the first day even without a sky? And who is found so ignorant as to suppose that God, as if He had been a husbandman, planted trees in paradise, in Eden towards the east, and a tree of life in it, i.e., a visible and palpable tree of wood, so that anyone eating of it with bodily teeth should obtain life, and, eating again of another tree, should come to the knowledge of good and evil? No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise, and that Adam lay hid under a tree, is related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it…

    It is very easy for anyone who pleases to gather out of holy Scripture what is recorded indeed as having been done, but what nevertheless cannot be believed as having rea­sonably and appropriately occurred according to the historical account.

    The same style of Scriptural narrative occurs abundantly in the Gospels, as when the devil is said to have placed Jesus on a lofty mountain, that he might show Him from thence all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them. How could it literally come to pass, either that Jesus should be led up by the devil into a high mountain, or that the latter should show him all the kingdoms of the world (as if they were lying beneath his bodily eyes, and adjacent to one mountain), i.e., the king­doms of the Persians, and Scythians, and Indians? Or how could he show in what manner the kings of these kingdoms are glorified by men? And many other instances similar to this will be found in the Gospels by anyone who will read them with atten­tion, and will observe that in those narratives which appear to be literally recorded, there are inserted and interwoven things which cannot be admitted his­torically, but which may be accepted in a spiritual signification.

    And if we are to inquire regarding the impossibilities of the law, we find an animal called the goat-stag, which cannot possibly exist, but which, as being in the number of clean beasts, Moses commands to be eaten; and a griffin, which no one ever remembers or heard of as yielding to human power, but which the legislator forbids to be used for food. Respecting the celebrated ob­servance of the Sabbath also he thus speaks: You shall sit, everyone in your dwellings; no one shall move from his place on the Sabbath day. Which precept it is impossible to observe literally; for no man can sit a whole day so as not to move from the place where he sat down…

    And now, if we institute a similar examination with regard to the Gospels, how shall it appear other­wise than absurd to take the injunction literally, Sa­lute no man by the way? And yet there are simple individuals, who think that our Saviour gave this com­mand to His apostles! How, also, can it appear possible for such an order as this to be observed, especially in those countries where there is a rigorous winter, attended by frost and ice, viz., that one should possess neither two coats, nor shoes? …

    The object of all these statements on our part, is to show that it was the design of the Holy Spirit, who deigned to bestow upon us the sacred Scriptures, to show that we were not to be edified by the letter alone, or by everything in it—a thing which we see to be frequently impossible and inconsistent; for in that way not only absurdities, but impossibilities, would be the result; but that we are to understand that certain occurrences were interwoven in this visible history, which, when considered and un­derstood in their inner meaning, give forth a law which is advantageous to men and worthy of God.

    Let no one, however, entertain the suspicion that we do not believe any history in Scripture to be real, because we suspect certain events related in it not to have taken place; or that no precepts of the law are to be taken literally, because we consider certain of them, in which either the nature or possi­bility of the case so requires, incapable of being ob­served; or that we do not believe those predictions which were written of the Saviour to have been ful­filled in a manner palpable to the senses; or that His commandments are not to be literally obeyed. We have therefore to state in answer, since we are manifestly so of opinion, that the truth of the history may and ought to be preserved in the majority of instances…

    For the passages which hold good in their historical ac­ceptation are much more numerous than those which contain a purely spiritual meaning. Then, again, who would not maintain that the command to honour your father and your mother, that it may be well with you, is sufficient of itself without any spiritual meaning, and necessary for those who observe it? Especially when Paul also has confirmed the com­mand by repeating it in the same words. ….

    And yet I have no doubt that an attentive reader will, in numerous instances, hesitate whether this or that his­tory can be considered to be literally true or not; or whether this or that precept ought to be observed according to the letter or no. And therefore great pains and labour are to be employed, until every reader reverentially understand that he is dealing with divine and not human words inserted in the sacred books.”

  78. Dino Avatar

    Thank you PJ.

  79. PJ Avatar

    If Origen’s rule of reading was followed, we would avoid much foolishness, and attain much wisdom. Sadly, we are constantly snagged by picayune details. I help lead a Bible study, and we actually had a long discussion about the line from Luke that Origen quotes in the above selection: “Greet no man along the way.” People kept asking questions about why Jesus would say such a thing!

  80. John Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for the response – I’ll look forward to the longer article on progressive revelation.

  81. Brittany Avatar

    Thank you, Father, I was really moved by this article.

    I have a question based on this idea that we can’t apply our human idea of psychology to God:

    A Roman Catholic friend of mine was doing an activity with her children during Lent where they make a crown of thorns out of dough and toothpicks. The children get to pick out a toothpick when ever they do something kind because they’re kind deeds “take away Jesus’ pain on the cross.”

    I felt like that theology was incorrect, but couldn’t find anything that explicitly said so. I feel like the idea not only quantifies Christ’s sufferings and makes us his savior (which would all be theologically incorrect) but it presumes to understand God’s psyche.

    What do you think about the idea that our good deeds could take away Christ’s pain?

    Thank you so much for any thoughts.

  82. John Avatar


    Upon further reflection and conversation, I find it a bit more difficult to accept the statement that God “has no emotions” when applied to the positive emotions (joy, delight) rather than the negative ones (anger, wrath) you focus on in the article. Does God not have the joy of the father running out to meet his prodigal son? Is there not “more joy in heaven” over one sinner who repents? Can we not “please” God? And is He not “saddened” by our sin (as is commonly taught in Protestant discourse)?

    I think your article would suggest that God’s disposition to us is always one of perpetual joy, pleasure, and delight, regardless of our actions, be they sinful or holy. But this seems strange to accept. Does neither our sin nor our holiness (though it is of course not “ours” in any way) affect God at all? This makes Him seem indifferent.

    A further corollary: if God is not affected by us whatsoever, then what is the purpose of petitionary prayer? I know we do not aim to “change God’s mind” through our prayers. But, if I fully accept that I have no affect on God whatsoever, then I think I would struggle to find any rationale to ask God for anything (healing, guidance, provision, etc).

    Thank you for your thoughts and guidance.

  83. Dino Avatar

    I will have to -inevitably- use an anthropomorphic example a with anthropomorphic language here… I base to on the parable of the ten lepers…
    Say, you have ten children and your love to them might be equal and unaffected by their actions towards you. However, you ‘appreciation’, your ‘recognition’ of that child that is grateful will still be dependant on the child’s action of gratitude.

  84. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is important in affirming that God does not have “emotions” to understand that we are stating that He utterly transcends what we experience as human beings:

    For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:8-9)

    I think it is correct to speak of God’s love and joy, and even of His anger if we qualify those statements properly. We live our lives in an almost fully “reactive” mode – and are tossed “to and fro” by everything that comes our way. There is a very good reason that the fathers teach what they call “apatheia” (“passionlessness”) as a normal goal on the path of theosis. It does not mean that a saint will have no emotions, but rather that they are not “reactive” in the sense of their weakness. God is always “active” in His work with us – never “passive” and “reactive.”

    It is also taught that God is love – God’s Energies towards us and all creation are unrelenting love. That love certainly can also be experienced as wrath and anger, etc. But this is our experience of His Energies. There are no words that can take us to the place of speaking of God’s experience, or even if God’s experience is like ours at all. But His experience is not passive.

    Christ on the Cross, who is fully human and thus subject to human experience, is nevertheless voluntarily there. “No one takes my life from me – I lay it down of myself.” The offering on the Cross is not what we do to God – but what God does for us. It is God’s voluntary entrance into death. We could not “murder” God. The enemy thought he could, and would not have done so had he known what it would mean. And we are told that Christ went to the Cross “for the joy that was set before Him.”

    God is certainly involved with us in a relation that is marked utterly by freedom and love – these are the grounds of what we call “personhood.” It is thus a “personal relationship.” There is giving and receiving (in freedom) in such a relation. But the emotional dance of pain and pleasure that think of as a personal relationship is simply a description of our fallen existence. And though we may use language from those broken experiences to describe God – God is not subject to broken experiences. We would understand this better if we new very much about a relationship that was not just a string of such experiences.

    To learn of a love that never changes and is not subject to the fluctuations, ebbs and flows of our broken lives is really quite different. If I might be truly bold, I would say that even the experience of God’s wrath – if we truly experienced it – would be something of unrelenting ecstasy. I will not say more than that.

    “I gonna make you love me,” the pop singer croons. And this is a sickness. Love doesn’t make anybody do anything. This is the brokenness of a diseased soul.

    God loves, but not as we love. God has joy, but not as we do, etc.

    As to prayer – I think petitionary prayer largely “affects” us. It lines us up with God’s will. It plunges us into the communion of heaven and the saints who speak with one voice in union with God.

    And in a completely shocking move – I will cite a sermon by Spurgeon that offers some fairly balanced reflection on this as well.

  85. Ian Attila Avatar
    Ian Attila

    First, sorry for the typo in my last post, I meant to ask a question, not declare my self all-knowing.
    Also, sorry I take so long to reply to you. (Its amazing how much you write Father.)
    Your last reply was very helpful. So if I’m understanding correctly, you are saying that there is no legal problem concerning salvation, because the word “legal” with our western view of Law, does not convey biblical truth. In other words, western Christians do not have a biblical understanding of what the words justice and legal mean. But if we change our understanding of these words, they could be used. Is this correct?

    I would love to hear your thoughts on Thomas Hopko’s talk. And please understand I’m not trying to start a theological sparing match between you two. Fr. Thomas’ talks on Ancient Faith Radio have been an important part in me coming into Orthodoxy. His very “balanced” approach to the atonement has been extremely helpful for me. I’m trying to understand where your coming from in the way you put things. From what I can see, my issues with how you have talked about the atonement seem to be on the level of semantics.

  86. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’ll offer an extended explanation of how I use the word “legal,” and why it is a problem for me.

    In our modern use of the word we mean something having to do with the law code, the law courts, the prison system, etc. Such laws as we have generally have good reasons (except when they don’t – cf. the tax code). They represent something of the social contract to which we have agreed by our participation in a modern democracy. They are “fictions,” in that they are simply ideas that we agree may have penalties attached to them.

    When I break a law (exceed the speed limit, for example), I have broken the “fiction” of an arbitrary speed limit. It is not the law of gravity, or any such “real” law. It is simply a violation of the social contract. If no one sees me, no harm is done. Nothing is actually “broken” or “hurt.” If I am seen by a radar-wielding police officer, I might be pulled over and fined – but the “harm” done is still only fictional. Only the threat of force by the police officer, and the legal bureaucracy that he represents, give any actual meaning to the “law.”

    In such an understanding of “law,” its only reality is in the “mind” of the state, and the state’s willingness to enforce it (make it “real” in my life by punishing me). When a child asks a parent why they should not do something and are told, “Because I said so!” they are being told that this is an arbitrary rule that exists only because of the will of the parent. It is not the same thing as saying, “Because it’s dangerous and you might get hurt.”

    If this understanding of “legal” is applied to our relationship with God, then it’s only “reality” lies in God’s willingness to enforce it. He becomes the Cosmic Policeman (Judge, jury, etc.). In this modern distortion of “legal,” God essentially says to us, “Do this or I will punish you in eternal hell (or whatever)!”

    The modern “legal” fiction of “Law,” requires the concept of the enforcer God, the wrathful God, even the arbitrary God. And the more arbitrary the rule seems, the less respect we have for God and His “law.”

    The Old Testament does not have such a view of the Law. It is both more “primitive,” and more “real.” Let’s think of the word “unclean.” It occurs commonly in Leviticus, for example. The people are warned that breaking certain laws will make them “unclean.” This is never explained (it probably wasn’t necessary at the time). But it contains the idea that certain actions, or touching certain things, etc. actually causes something to happen, actually makes a person “unclean” in a spiritual sense that is not precisely defined. But what is important – is that it teaches that something actually happens!

    This is a world removed from our modern “legal” ideas. Were it a modern “legal” understanding, it would mean, “Do not do that or God will think of you as if you were unclean.” But the problem, again, would only be in the mind of God.

    The same thing can be said about the word “abomination.” It should be noted that eating beef along with milk (a cheeseburger for example) is an “abomination” in the Levitical code. It is considered hideous because it combines a “calf” with its mother’s milk, thus somehow sinning against the natural relation of mother and child. I would add that in its “real” sense, the abomination would include something like the voice of the cows crying out to God against you for what you have done to them. This should not sound so odd, since the OT teaches that the “land” cries out against the people when they refuse to give it its proper rest, etc. But an abomination is not an abomination because God doesn’t like it – it is an abomination because it renders us somehow distorted, unclean, polluted, etc. The damage is not in the mind of God. It is somehow objective.

    I could multiply all of these examples. But what is clear is that the Old Testament law (again seeming primitive in modern eyes) is extremely “realistic” in the notion of Law. Bad things happen and are set in place by people who do bad things. Something has to be done about it, not because God is offended, but because things have been messed up and must be set right. This, by the way, is the role of a Judge in the OT – to “set things right.”

    St. Paul treats the Law as a “handwriting that was against us.” The Law is a diagnostic sheet, describing the disease of death that we bring on ourselves by our misguided actions.

    And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. (Col 2:13-15 NKJ)

    Here St. Paul not only speaks of the Law as being against us – but even links it with the “principalities and powers” over which Christ triumphed.

    I write at length here, and in my book, on the notion of the “ontological” character of our relationship with God and the atonement. “Ontological” means “pertaining to being,” and in this case means that the problem and solution is rooted in our very existence itself. Sin as death translates very well into this notion of being and existence. Thus, sin is not simple a legal fiction maintained by an enforcer, but something that affects our very existence. In the teaching of the Fathers, that effect is a “movement” (kenesis) towards non-existence, non-being. We were created for the progression: being, well-being, eternal being. Instead we move from being towards non-being (though we can never reach actual non-existence because being is itself a gift from God which cannot be destroyed and God does not take it from us.

    But speaking of sin, death, atonement, etc., in ontological terms has the advantage of removing the problem from a mere enforcement within God. It is not God’s mind or attitude, or justice, etc. that needs to be changed – it is the very character of our existence that needs to be healed.

    The OT understanding of Law is itself much closer to an ontological approach than it is to a modern legal approach in that the breaking of the Law incurs not a mere legal penalty (punishment, enforcement), but something that is existentially true (abomination, uncleanness, etc.).

    I feel certain that were the conversation with Fr. Thomas to turn towards such an understanding of the terms involved, we would be in complete agreement.

    I am highly critical of any use of “legal” terminology, because I think that modern listeners and readers are unable, largely, to remove themselves from the modern legal worldview and think in more “one-storey” OT terms. The ontological approach accomplishes this much more faithfully.

    I hope this explanation is helpful.

  87. Nicodemus Avatar

    That blessed me very much, Father, thank you. I’m still sloughing off PSA and your expounding is very helpful and beautiful to me.

  88. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,

    This is a very helpful explanation of what you mean by “legal”. My only regret is that it is in a comment section that many may not see. Perhaps you could re-post it as an article at some point? I know you have explained this before but I think this was particularly edifying.

  89. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton


    I am RC and I think your friend’s lenten practice was theologically incorrect though undoubtedly well-intended.

    From a psychological point of view, it has the benefit of helping children feel reinforced for being kind. However, that is not a good reason for teaching them poor theology.

    A similar reinforcement system could be established by having each child have a marker on a path leading to risen Christ (using colors, pictures or whatever might be a suitable representations). Each time the child did something kind, their marker could move forward and get closer to Him.

    (Accomplishes the same objective but would, I think, be on firmer ground theologically.) Correct me if I’m wrong, Fr. Stephen, since I am not Orthodox.

  90. Brittany Avatar

    Mary Benton, we must have ESP, haha, because that’s EXACTLY the activity I thought of doing as an alternative!

    Thanks so much for your thoughts on that.

  91. Ian Attila Avatar
    Ian Attila

    Fr Stephen,

    Thank you for the extended explanation! It was very helpful. I have much to think about.

    But this leads me to ask another question. If we should understand the Law in terms of an ontological character, in which the commands of the Law have to do with objective, metaphysical reality and not legal fictions of the mind-in us or God–how are we to understand a passage like Ephesians 1:7, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses…” The idea that there is forgiveness of sins through the blood/sacrifice of Christ, to me, seems logical only in a frame work that has a more modern understanding of Law I’m not saying that Christ’s suffering was punishment to satisfy God’s wrath, but, from my understanding, Christ offers his life (his blood) to God, as the high priest, to God the Father, on behalf of all, somehow effecting forgiveness of sins for all. Why is that Christ blood brings forgiveness? How do you understanding this Fr. Stephen? How does this work in the ontological model?

  92. fatherstephen Avatar

    Why do you presume forgiveness of trespasses to have a “legal” meaning. Christ equated forgiveness with healing in the case of the Paralytic.
    St. John says, “If we walk in the light as He is in the light, then the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin…”

    This forgiveness as “cleansing” implies that there is something to be washed and cleaned away – i.e. something with an “ontological” character. You cannot “wash” away a traffic ticket.

    But if “sin” is like a “stain” then it can be washed away. So how is sin like a stain? This is a much more Biblical (OT) question, and is very much an “ontological” question.

    An example of an answer. If “the life is in the blood” and sin is death, and gives us the “stain” of death (corruption), then the blood of Jesus precisely “washes” away the stain and repairs and heals us.

    The blood in the OT does not serve as something given to God. Where does it say that we should give blood to God? Why would God need or require blood?

    What we do know about the blood of Jesus – is that it washes us. And we know that we drink it. And that if we drink it He dwells in us. What do these things have to do with offering His blood to the Father?

    I’m not trying to push a single answer in this particular response, but to raise certain questions that are simply not at all solved by the fiction of the modern legal imagery.

    You question – Why is it that Christ’s blood brings forgiveness is excellent. The corollary is “what does forgiveness mean?” If God is not the one holding a grudge, or enforcing a Law, then what is forgiveness? What was the forgiveness of the Paralytic? Was Christ implying that the Paralytic was paralyzed as a punishment for something he did?

    Every answer to these questions that involves the modern legal model winds up forcing us to say hideous things about God.

    I’ll write more later – but I’ll let these questions and thoughts sit for a little while.

  93. Michelle Avatar

    This explanation of the modern use of “legal” is very enlightening, but now I have mixed feelings about eating a cheeseburger. How will I ever enjoy my McDouble now that I know the cow is crying out to God? Lol.

  94. Ian Attila Avatar
    Ian Attila

    I will be pondering and praying about what you have written Fr. Stephen. I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on this.

  95. […] I read a short quote and was encouraged by the blog’s author to read a post called “Grace and the Psychology of God” by Father Stephen Freeman. As I read through the entry I came across […]

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