The Hand in the Gospel

My desk sits looking out of a wall of windows. My small backyard is shaded by a lush green this time of year. At any time of day or night, nature sounds mark the movement of the sun as much as the shifting shadows: birds in the early morning give way to katydids as the sun moves up the sky, succeeded by the drone of frogs as night sets in. Everyone living in any age would enjoy the experience. But the experience would have very different meanings at different times. My ancient English ancestors would have drawn particular note of the great White Oak nearby, and would think its presence was a good, even a great thing. The various birds at different times of day, visiting the yard, would carry clear omens, portents of events to come. At present, the neighborhood and city is largely inhabited by scientists and technicians. They enjoy the beauty, but only take comfort in their own thoughts. For them, every growing thing is an object. It’s content is nothing more than the arrangement of carbon molecules. They may have a sense of wonder, but they are far more likely to wonder at how alone they feel and how empty the world is.

The modern mind dwells in the midst of objects, but it only ever encounters its own thoughts. In a series of historical developments, popular thought in the modern world has come to take the shape of a form of nominalism. The only connections between objects, between people themselves, indeed, with God, are thoughts. We might say, “I feel your pain,” but we only mean a psychological experience. Your pain is your own, not mine.

Classical Christianity predates this nominalistic worldview. In many ways, it is more akin to the experience of my ancient tree-worshipping ancestors. True knowledge is not seen as a psychological event. Rather, it is an experience of communion, a true participation in the life and being of the other – whether tree, rock or human being. When the modern mind encounters blatant examples of this, it is generally repulsed, assuming that the claims and practices that surround such people are nothing more than superstitions. The modern man might believe in God, but relates to God far more objectively, that is, as an object. If he says that he has a relationship with God, he means that it is largely similar to his relationship with a friend or spouse. It is a psychological event. Relationships consist of memory, reason and sentiment.

A very interesting example of the Classical experience can be found in the Orthodox sacrament of Holy Unction (healing). Holding the Gospel Book open, with its pages face down over the heads of those who have come for healing, the priest prays:

O Holy King, deeply compassionate and greatly-merciful Lord Jesus Christ, Son and Word of the Living God, You do not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live:  I do not lay my sinful hand upon the head of these Your servants who are come to You in their iniquities, and ask of You, through us, the pardon of their sins, but rather Your strong and mighty hand, which is in this, Your Holy Gospel, that is held upon the head of these Your servants…  etc.

This same action (laying the open Gospel on the head) is done for the ordination of a bishop. The other bishops gather round and lay their hands on the Gospel, but it is the Gospel itself (the hand of God) that actually lies on the head of the one being ordained.

A modern or contemporary Christian would generally see this as a quaint ceremony, perhaps going so far as to think that the Gospel book is being used to “symbolize” the hand of God (meaning nothing more than a psychological notion). But in no way would a contemporary believer think that God’s hand is actually in the Gospel Book.

However, that is precisely what the prayer says, and precisely what it means. The book of the Gospels that rests on the altar table, is always marked by careful treatment. It is not carried by the laity; only the ordained read from it; it is reverenced like an icon (with bows and kisses). It is probably more correct to say that the hand of God is iconically present in the gospel, but only if this is understood in the strong sense of the Orthodox, that such a presence is real and true.

An important question for the modern mind to consider (if it is open) is, “How is this possible?” How can Christians have ever said that the hand of God is in the Gospel? For the Church has not only said such a thing, but has added that Christ is present in His icon; the saints are present in their icons; the relics of the saints (their flesh and bones) are bearers of the very presence of the saints themselves. It is a consistent witness that objects may truly be holy in a manner that transcends our psychology. They are not just considered holy, but are. A modern person might be respectful towards an object, but is never doing more than showing respect for someone’s feelings. Value, worth, holiness and the like, all reside as ideas alone. This objective emptiness represents a “secularization” of objects. It is similar to the secularization of the calendar (“all days are the same”), the secularization of the clergy (it’s just a job), the secularization of the whole world.

The point I want to make in these observations is to show two radically different understandings of the world. For the contemporary person, the world is the kind of place that is made up of empty objects. We may have feelings and beliefs about them in our heads, but things are simply things and nothing more. If they are treated in a special way, it is only because we have decided to do so.

This secularized thought lies at the heart of most Christianity in the modern world. If I point to the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament, an object that was surrounded with careful directions on how it was to be treated and carried, and by whom, as well as being surrounded with the caveat that failure to do so would result in death, those Christians would assert that the consequences of mishandling the Ark were not in the Ark itself, but in the actions of God. It is the belief that if we touch the Ark incorrectly, God will kill us. Thus “holy” only means what God thinks about something, and what He is willing to do in order to make us agree.

This makes the secularized, nominalistic world an inherently violent place. Meaning, value, purpose, holiness, etc., exist only as thoughts, feelings and decisions. We believe we can make them “real” (effective), only by being willing to do violence to make someone else agree. This applies to God as well. The moral universe of Divine reward and punishment places God into the position of merely another player on the field, though the largest. God’s “will” is nothing more than His ability to enforce His choices on another. No matter how we might justify such actions (God is just, therefore even His violence is just), we have still reduced Him to one among many violent actors in the world.

And so we find ourselves living in a china shop, with lots and lots of rules about how to treat the dishes and the priceless objects and the consequences for doing it wrong. But the china itself is nothing. It’s only a collection of objects whose presence gives you the possibility of doing things wrong. “You broke my favorite dish!”

This is the weakness of modern juridical thinking. Justice in the hands of a nominalist is, like all things, a requirement for violence. It is the pyschologization of the universe (and God) and the disenchantment of the world, reducing everything to a collection of empty objects governed by rules. There is no communion with an object (nor could there be, because an object is just a “thing”).

What kind of world do we live in, if God’s hand truly is in the book?

I will offer another image:

Contemporary Christian treatments of the Scriptures see them as a map. The map is studied with great care, its various markings carefully noted and debated. Scholars discuss the scale of miles and write books about the history of mileage measurements. The map itself becomes an object. It is flat, two-dimensional, filled with detail. However, the map itself is not the territory to which it points. To read a map and to walk on the road indicated by the map are two very different things.

Classical Orthodox theology is ultimately, experiential. It is the living witness of those who have actually walked the roads marked on the map. They reverence the map, but they do so only because they themselves know that the map is true, not as a point of theological ideology, but because they have actually been in the far country described on the map itself. The battle cry of the map-readers is, “Sola Scriptura! Only the map!”

There is a peculiar doctrine found among some Protestants called “Cessationism.” It holds that all of the miracles and wonders recorded in the New Testament ceased when the book itself was completed. The purpose of the Apostles for them was to produce a book). Christ’s proclamation, “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand!” is lost on them (or becomes a threat of coming violence). They do not want the Kingdom (except when they die). All that matters now is the map.

It is, of course, a peculiar and minority doctrine within Protestantism. But that it arose at all is a tell-tale sign of an incipient idea within Protestant thought itself. The world of objects does not harbor the Kingdom itself. At most, the Kingdom is seen as a moral pathway, map-reading at its finest.

St. Anthony the Great, living in his cave, owned no books. A visiting philosopher was scandalized at the lack of Scripture. St. Anthony’s reply was, “My book, O philosopher, is the world!” St. Anthony’s greatness within the Kingdom allowed him to “read” the truth in every rock and grain of sand.

You cannot read the book if you cannot see the Hand.

I should add, as a caveat, that many reduce the Fathers to text, as well. They become nothing more than map-extenders. But the Fathers cannot be truly “read” except by those who discern the Hand. You must walk where they walked.

The leaders of Israel said that Christ was casting out demons through the power of the devil (for such was their map-reading). He responded by saying, “If I, by the finger of God, cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come near you!”

Just so.



About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


28 responses to “The Hand in the Gospel”

  1. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Father Bless,
    Two thoughts occurred to me reading your post. The first is an observation of the issues that so deeply affect people in this modern world. We have a great deal of violence in our society and many seek to limit the tools of violence without addressing the real issue- those who do the violence.
    I have often wondered why this world is so violent and the people, especially in our culture, so addictive. Violence and addiction seem to go hand in hand. In your post I saw some of the answer. How terribly lonely we are and empty inside when our world is nothing but objects. We are made for communion, but we cannot have communion with objects and thoughts. We objectify people instead of communing with them, therefore, we are lost and alone in the world and deeply hurting.
    Secondly, I was struck by how utterly pagan this makes our view of God. We are forbidden to make objects and worship them (objectify God) but that is exactly what is being done in any faith grounded in nominalism. When I look at the Ten Commandments, I see not Laws but methods of having proper relationship and communion with others. It is very difficult to have communion with a God who is a thing and a person who is the thing we are committing violence towards. Without communion, we use others as objects, even God.
    Your post has put a great number of pieces together for me in understanding not only our Faith, but what has gone wrong in the world. Thank you Father.

  2. Panayiota Avatar

    Could we say that the experience your ancestors had with a tree, would be closer to an experience of Gods energies? ( Just as the Gospel would be during the ordination of a bishop.)

  3. Chris Avatar

    Though I am a believer, read and understand what you have written I believe I am still affected by the “modern mind dwelling in the midst of objects.”

    Sometimes, if only faintly, I get an internal sense of something beyond or something else within an object, whether an icon or an object of nature itself, that I see (God’s HANDiwork you might say?) But, my mind, though internally I am at peace, shuts this notion down as maybe I am being supersticious or worse. I am not sure if that makes sense, but it is what it is.

    In the end, the main question I come away with after reading this is do I understand holiness? Can I even truly comprehend the holiness that is the communion of saints, that is the Holy Church, that is the Holy Gospel, that is the Kingdom of God, that is the body & blood of our Lord, and the Holy Trinity? I do not think I do nor can come anywhere close to it. It seems quite impossible to me while I “dwell in the midst of objects.”

    I apologize for the lack of brevity and the fact that I am not sure my comments necessarily tie in very well with your article. Regardless, your writing always intrigues me, challenges me, and gets me thinking and asking questions of myself and others.

    Thank you.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The mind amidst the objects is normal for all of us in our culture, with very few exceptions. I treat it a little like the delusions of the “matrix.” If I study and question closely the assumptions behind our nominalism it falls apart on so many levels. That being the case, I am better able to doubt my own nominalism. This makes it possible to entertain the classical mind of the Fathers.

    That mind is, indeed, “noetic.” We have the faculty, the nous, for perceiving things according to a true manner. Those occasional glimpses of clarity are something I treasure.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m not sure how to describe it.

  6. Pete Avatar


    It seems to me that in order to receive your word on this (which I wholeheartedly agree with) is to understand Christ was bringing something radically different: radically new and certainly not in any sterile “story of salvation.” The parable of the new wineskins was that introduction. New wine into new wineskins = a paradigm shift so big that old constructs simply could Not contain it.

    The kingdom (by active participation) is just that. Your quote, Father, of St Anthony, reminds me of a contemporary Elder, when asked “What would happen if all scripture and worship books were burned?” He simply stated that we would write new ones.

    I think what has been offered, what has been received is a new radical way (frenzied love, as I read someone recently quote Yannaras here) – these are the only things that can contain it. It is this radical departure. It is this “new and living way” Heb 10:20. V.21 -22 also says

    “And having an high priest over the house of God; 22Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.”

    This mode of existence (this “new and living way”) is the radical departure and the radical character of divine ascent. “Morality takes on a whole new meaning within this context – the context of what we are called to be – Saints.

    We have our first American born Hierarch that is known to be incorrupt. The miraculous is the essence of the Kingdom (this dimension we are speaking about) One of the things I really enjoyed about reading both “Everyday Saints” and “Laurus” was this sense that all of this is very real and we could enter this dimension at any time (because the Lord is so gracious about our state)

    Another thing Father, that you spoke of was the reality of the scriptures having God’s hand in it. We know that Christ is the image of the Father; the very express image of him Col 1:15 & Heb 1:3. The Gospel is the very express image of the Son, the Divine Logos; Holy Wisdom. This wisdom is freely given through a life of peace and repentance. This is anything but “flat” or two dimensional.

    It is absolutely remarkable to note that in the Epistle of John the phrase “we know” in used 7 times. John the Theologian had a “knowing.” This knowing was familiar territory for him. We are freely to receive as well. The path of repentance is a light burden because it is by union of wills that we join the only Ever Existing one. This full assurance of faith becomes our mode (in this union)

    Just a couple of examples from I John – there are more.

    “… But whoever keeps His word, in him verily the love of God is perfected. Hereby we know that we are in Him” (1 John 2:5).

    “Hereby know we that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments” (1 John 5:2).

    16 Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. ( 1 John 3:16)

  7. Martin Avatar

    RE: Modernity and Biblical interpretation

    Another example pertaining to the atonement is Romans 7 and 8. Many times the atonement’s “efficacy” is relegated to Romans 3 and the few verses used to support imputation (2 Cor. 5/ Rom. 5), but whenever I read Romans 7 and 8, I’m saying to myself, “This is about atonement.” I won’t quote the chapters, but it perfectly merges law with sin, corruption, holiness, the Spirit, the flesh, life and death. It is beautiful and flows with harmony and hope when it is allowed to say what it is saying, and it is ontological. For most readers, “In order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” is entirely abstract and forensic, even though St. Paul immediately adds, “Who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.”

    Everything that follows is physical, actual, relationship and communion language about an ongoing process of healing out of and away from sin and death in union with the Lord into and by the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life. The law awakens sin, reveals the sickness, and hurries to death. And St. Paul expands it until Creation itself groans to be set free from its bondage and decay. Actual decay. Actual bondage. The Creation, groaning.

    Now, if you have a low view of Sacramental theology–memorial, symbols, or signs–and you read this, you are left–and I think this is the case for many Protestants (in the “Matrix” of Modernity)–you have only your own will and strength to populate and discern that journey. Sure, you’ll find others to bolster the doctrines you need to believe in to believe. Sermons and books and music and everything echo the same message, but the reality of which they speak is not there. The world is devoid of magic and mystery, its mechanical and material and cold, except in your head where you have these few thoughts you have to hold together or it disappears. The back of the wardrobe is always wood, nothing more.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you for these wonderful thoughts and insights. Your observation on Romans is just the sort of thing that illustrates how blind modern secular/nominalism leaves people. It is also the breeding ground of modern atheism.

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There is an old story about a young man in China who wanted to be a jade master. The young man was apprenticed to a well known and respected master.

    The master instructed the young man to come early in the morning. When the young man arrived the master have him a piece of jade and told him to sit down and listen. The master talked with the young man about all kinds of things but not about jade.

    For weeks the young man came every morning sat at the master’s feet and listened but was never told about jade.

    Finally the young man asked the master when he was going to start learning about jade. The master merely responded by telling the young man to come back in the morning.

    The young man came as instructed. The master placed a green stone in the young man’s had just like every other morning.

    Immediately the young man said, “that’s not jade.”

  10. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for this blog post and your comments here.

    Thank you, Martin, for your observations on Romans. Well said!

    Glory to God for All Things!

  11. Pete Avatar

    Something I want to point out on Heb 10:20-22 is that this “new and living way” Heb 10:20 – is completely Eucharistic language. ” Let us draw near”; everyone that is Orthodox knows exactly what that is. To the non-orthodox this is simply an expression (another idea, therefore another interpretation) of the truth. Water and baptism are organically linked in the passages (of experience) to the cup as well ! We need to understand what’s going on here.

    What is missing in any non-orthodox understanding (ontological reality, {anything less are simply ideas competing in the marketplace of ideas!}) is Eucharistic expression (i.e., The express image of the Kingdom), this Is The coming of the Kingdom. These aren’t ideas. What is entirely missing in non-orthodox understanding is that what constitutes i.e. inaugurates the Kingdom and what is the alpha and omega of it, is the consuming of the resurrected flesh that Christ himself inaugurated on the mystical Pascha on the night that he was given up, or rather gave himself up.

    Anything else is a serious rupture.

    We partake of uncreated Grace. It’s that simple. By participating in the body we become constituted by it!! (becoming, be & became – all at once {now} and always!)

    These words are to be taking very seriously. Something serious to consider is this: Do we have the same faith as our Fathers and the Apostolic Church or is what we hold onto somehow muted and not going to the center of what Christ himself has inaugurated?

    At the parish level, a deeper and clearer understanding of this with pure hearts would revolutionize the Church – in a quiet way. From outside the Church those that joined (united to Christ) would be transformed; transfigured as by fire – In every possible dimension that the Spirit would bring.

  12. Jordan Avatar

    Modern life aims at fungibility. This is especially true in the cities, where the goal is predictability and control over the natural rhythms of time. Mobility makes relationships exchangeable. Corporate life commodifies time. There is a kind of erasure of those boundaries that gave shape to life in the past; today, life is shaped by the will, and increasingly so as we are increasingly capable of effective action. This is a lost and lonely sort of existence.

  13. Dino Avatar

    that is very much as you stated it! After the numerous occurrences of Reform Christians (on this blog) displaying salient “cognitive bias” towards a psychologised, forensic understanding of salvation (and of interpreting Scripture), I realize great Grace is essential to untie such folk of that one-sided mind-set.
    What is lost is the very traditional notion of ‘righteousness’ as an action of Grace bestowed upon man, an uncreated energy emanating from God [in a similar way to the otherworldly peace and joy we see bestowed upon great martyrs, maintained throughout their martyrdom], (freeing man from the law of sin and death and permanently establishing the law of the Spirit in him).

  14. Pete Avatar

    And Dino and Martin,

    Is there a judiciary in heaven? Their orientation of salvation is centered in the realm of ideas and a conceptualized framework. They may claim ontology, but a judiciary in heaven does Not fit the construct.

    If they could just connect those dots…think this through…

  15. Agata Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen,

    I hope you don’t mind if I (again, and since I appreciate when others share great links) post a link to Dr. Clark Carlton’s talk “Roman Road Revisited: The Glory of God and the Salvation of Man”. I think it’s the most wonderful summary of Orthodox spirituality…. especially for Protestants.

  16. Justin Avatar

    Michael: Thanks for posting that Jade story, It’s quite enlightening.

  17. Drewster2000 Avatar

    MichaelB: Very much appreciated the jade story as well.

  18. David Brent Avatar
    David Brent


    I watched the entire video you posted. It has blessed me greatly. It is wonderful. Thank you!!

  19. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Father, is it possible for one to totally overcome a modern worldview and totally enjoy the worldview of the church fathers, or the apostolic world for that matter.

    I spent, in the past, a lot of time in hermeneutics. It was a problem for me. I admit becoming Orthodox has helped me a lot.

  20. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Father, I don’t know where to ask this, so, please, here.

    Can a non-monk really learn to practice and appreciate the Jesus Prayer?

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Those of us born into the modern world, I think, will never completely lose the impact of modernity on our mind and heart – on this side of death. It’s very, very difficult. But we can acquire the mind of the fathers on an increasing basis – by the grace of the Spirit. It’s something I write about a lot.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    On the Jesus Prayer. Yes – the Jesus Prayer can be acquired by anyone. Notice, I say, “Acquired.” Anyone can “practice” it, but acquiring it as true prayer of the heart is a gift from God. If it were not so, it would be a technique rather than an act of grace.

  23. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Acquired over practiced. I understand. I think I am still practicing.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m still practicing, too. After 18 years.

  25. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Then there’s hope (and grace) for me.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Read this story by Donald Sheehan about his experience with the Jesus Prayer (and his conversion to the faith). It should encourage us all.

  27. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    What a powerful story. Thank you.

  28. Diana Welsch Avatar
    Diana Welsch

    Father Bless,
    Please provide the link to the Sheehan article you referenced. Many thanks.

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