Entering the Mystery of Christmas

Orthodox Christianity is deeply associated with the word “mystery.”  Its theological hymns are replete with paradox, repeatedly affirming two things to be true that are seemingly contradictory. Most of these things are associated with what is called “apophatic” theology, or a theology that is “unspeakable.” This same theological approach is sometimes called the Via Negativa. This is easily misunderstood in common conversation. An Orthodox discussion takes place and reaches an impasse. Inevitably, someone will remind us that some things are simply a “mystery,” etc. But this “unknowableness” is actually a misuse of mystery and its place in the Church’s life. For though mystery, paradox, and contradiction frame something as “unknowable,” they do so for the purpose of knowing.

To know is not the equivalent of mastering facts. Knowledge, in the New Testament, is equated with salvation itself (Jn. 17:3). But what kind of knowing is itself salvific? In the simplest terms, it is knowledge as participation.

Then they said to Him, “Where is Your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither Me nor My Father. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also.” (Joh 8:19)


O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them. (Joh 17:25-26)

Christ is by no means speaking of knowledge as information. Instead, it is knowledge that “dwells” in them. Such knowledge cannot be gained by the simple sharing of information nor by the acquisition of a system of ideas. It is experiential, on the one hand, but in a manner that is itself transformative.

We experience things all the time. It is possible to say that we are changed by experience. But it is another thing to say that the experience itself now dwells in you and communicates a new life to you. At its very heart, this is the nature of revelation. And this is key within the life of Orthodoxy. What dwells in us as “knowledge,” is, in fact, Christ Himself as knowledge. Christ Himself is the revealer, the revealing and what is revealed.

It would be possible to “master” Orthodoxy as a system of thought. One could know a set of doctrines and teachings, and even be able to enter into discussion and argument. But this in no way actually constitutes true knowledge of Orthodoxy, much less Orthodoxy as saving knowledge.

The Orthodox faith is a making-known-of-the-mystery. And this is utterly essential. However, the Orthodox faith is not static content, but the dynamic reality of the living Christ. It is, properly, a revealed faith, and cannot be had in any other manner. And strangely, the mystery is as essential as the knowing. Only that which is hidden can be revealed.

It is a common mistake to treat the New Testament itself as the revelation of God, or the collection of the information newly revealed through Christ. We historicize Christ’s work as a set of teachings, an assemblage of theological information that we may now discuss, dissect and comprehend, rendering into nothing more than religion. However, the New Testament (and the fullness of the Church) have the mystery within them, and must be encountered first as mystery before they can be acquired as knowledge.

Paradox and contradiction, hiddenness and mystery are all inherent means of saving knowledge. Their presence within Scripture and the liturgical tradition are not mere styles of communication. They provide an access into a form a knowledge that cannot be communicated in any other manner. They are not mere screens shielding wonderful knowledge from our view, a knowledge that once revealed can then be shared without reference to the mystery. Because the kind of knowledge that is saving knowledge both causes and requires an inner transformation, it cannot be shared in a manner other than that through which it was first acquired. The single most important means of saving knowledge in the Tradition is the liturgical life of the Church. It is there that we sing the mystery. The hymns of the Church delight in paradox and contradiction. They urge the heart to enter into this mystical bounty. Those who have no experience of Orthodox liturgical worship can only wonder at this. Those who do, I daresay, understand exactly what I am saying.

We can say that it is not merely the rationalization of Christian teaching that is problematic, but even the efforts to make plain and straightforward and easily accessible what can only be known through mystery, paradox and contradiction. For this reason, it is true that most engagement in theological speech is done by those who don’t know what they are talking about. What passes for “theology” can easily be little more than one swine discussing pearls with another.

True theology is as much a matter of how we know as it is what we know. Further, everything about our own condition also matters in both what we may know and how we may know it. Saving knowledge cannot be isolated from the whole of who we are and how we are. The experience encountered in paradox and mystery is frequently a necessary condition for knowing the truth. We may very well come away with knowledge, and yet be speechless.

I studied Orthodoxy and the Fathers for over 20 years before I was received into the Church. But there were some things that I only began to know on the day of my reception. More than that, a slow process began in which everything I thought I knew was changed. The manner of knowing the faith as a communicant made the content of faith something other than what I thought I knew. Christ is quite clear that purity of heart is essential in the knowledge of God. St. Silouan says that we only know God to the extent that we love our enemies. So it is always right to ask of ourselves, “What is the state of my heart as I approach this mystery?”

We are drawing near to the feast of Christ’s Nativity, His birth as a child and entrance into the human condition. That event is among the greatest mysteries of the faith, surrounded by paradox and contradiction. It can (as so much else) be reduced to a greeting card or a doctrinal fact. But such a reduction cannot save. “Peace on earth, goodwill among men,” is a greeting of paradox and contradiction.

If you would enter into the mystery, then, like Christ Himself, you must become small, weak, poor, misunderstood, and willing to be broken. You cannot know Him if you refuse to be like Him. This is the only path that is truly Christian. Outside the mystery, there is nothing to be known, nothing that will save.


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.





83 responses to “Entering the Mystery of Christmas”

  1. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Father Bless,
    I concur wholeheartedly. The only way to know God is to experience Him through participation. As a Protestant Seminarian I learned about God. The theological thought was systematized and a subjec t for committing to memory. But in Hebrew class I learned more than I learned in all of my theology classes because I learned the Hebrew verb Yadah, which we translate “know” but means to know by experiencing the person or object in question. The verb first appears in Genesis as Adam “experienced Eve.
    When I became interested in Orthodoxy I studied it as a system to be remembered, Little by little I have come to experience God in the Liturgy especially. In prayer, the other services and in Liturgy I find myself submerged into the Faith and experience it and God. I admit there are times that I have to be prodded to do my part as I am so engrossed in worship that I forget that I have to speak or act. It is truly mystery and the only way for us to explain it to other people is to simply invite them to come and see.

  2. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Thank you, Father.

    This is exactly what ultimatly seduced me into the Orthodox faith. I had an extensive background in Eastern religion an philosophy and was attracted to that because of the emphasis placed on one’s personal merging with God (though not the personal God as Christianity understands Him) through meditation practices. I had never encountered this in the various forms of Christianity I had studied, aside from a few of the Catholic saints like Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross. It wasn’t until I found The Mountain of Silence by Kyriacos Markides that I found what I was seeking: modern living examples of individuals who had attained purity of heart and acquired the Holy Spirit (theosis) within themselves by appling Christ’s teachings in their lives (with the help of God’s grace). And for the first time, I finally “got” Christ and realized that He is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” May God help us all to embrace and experience the Mystery of Christ in our lives.

  3. Michelle Avatar

    In marriage the husband and wife sometimes find themselves to have an unsurmountable disparity in beliefs over something, effecting how each lives out their life from day to day. For example, how money ought to be handled, or how a child is to be reared, or what have you.
    But a marriage is a union of persons where two become one in truth. I wonder if two become one amidst these disparities in a mysterious way also. Under such tensions each person lays aside what they think they “know” and sacrifices it for the sake of the TRUE KNOWLEDGE of their marriage-union. This true knowledge is not found in each one’s personal belief system, but can only be experienced in unspeakable terms as they give themselves wholely, body and sole, to one another. Is this the same as your message here, Father?

  4. Chris M Avatar
    Chris M

    “You cannot know him if you refuse to be like him.” Ouuuch! I’m sure the post isn’t directed at anyone in particular, but it still stings, especially after our recent discussion on “denomination shopping” and conversion anxiety! I thought my anxiety meant I couldn’t be proud, but after reading this, I realize, maybe the truth is the exact opposite: I’m terrified to make myself “small, weak, poor, misunderstood, and willing to be broken.” – terrified of making a mistake (and, probably, mostly for the wrong reasons). Thank you for helping me to see the “state of my heart.”

    I re-read the last three paragraphs of your post three times and I have a feeling I’ll continue to think about it for a while.

  5. Tavi Avatar

    Thank you, Father. I was driving today, and one thought overwhelmed me: become a manger! Knowing Him is also becoming His manger. And I refuse it every day…

  6. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Father, distinguishing the forms of knowing is definitely needed in this society. I believe the form that is distinctive to the manner of communion with God is ‘lost’ to those who have not been received into the Church.

    Similar to your experience, my reception into the Church has also begun to change my understanding of the content of the faith. And I’m grateful for this needful food for my soul.

    I believe that such communion is fundamentally part of our human nature to know God in this manner. But this capacity in our hearts has been distorted in our fallen state, and as a result, we rely on ‘surface’ knowledge and float on the surface of this Life. Some prefer the easier life on the surface rather than doing the work of repentance needed to plumb the depths of the mystery.

    Chris M, your comment made me smile. We should all feel that ‘ouch’!

  7. Paula Avatar

    Father Bless!
    Thank you for this.
    ” The single most important means of saving knowledge in the Tradition is the liturgical life of the Church.” While the reading I had done prior to my first Church visit was helpful, it was not until I finally went that I was totally captured. You mention being speechless….I was speechless, only tears flowed. I still can not describe it. I arrived for Matins…by the time the choir began to sing “Glory to Thee Who has shown us the Light…” , that was it for me. At the end of the service the woman sitting next to me (we remain friends to this day) said “you’re new here, aren’t you” (!). There was no self-consciousness of sitting there crying with my hankie in hand…no, I had found, by God’s ever loving grace, the very thing my heart was longing for. And since then I live to know these paradoxes that were simply glossed over or inaccurately explained away. These are the answers to the confusion we experience in this world. Learning is good, but it can not compare to entering into the mystery through the Divine Liturgy.
    Another thing you mention: “the Orthodox faith is not static content, but the dynamic reality of the living Christ”. If this were not so, there would be a time when our knowledge of God would be full, complete. Of coarse we know this is not and will never be the case. This is why I am thankful for those of you whom I can learn and receive guidance from. Only I beg your patience, because like a horse that needs to be broke to submit, I too must do the same….so thank you Father for these words “you must become small, weak, poor, misunderstood, and willing to be broken”.

  8. Maria Avatar

    “Peace on earth, goodwill among men,” is a greeting of paradox and contradiction.

    and it seems this contradiction found in the Nativity of Christ is found also in His crucifixion and Resurrection and brings the point of love of enemies to fruition when we sing at Pascha “let us call brothers even those who hate us”.

  9. Paul Avatar

    To the Western mind, the ideas you discuss about Orthodoxy in this posting are nonsense, pure nonsense. Superstition, ignorance, cultish, pagan, primative are also thrown around, often by those who claim to be Christian.
    Once when discussing the Incarnation with an atheist, the non believer said: So, this “God” you believe in, this all knowing, all powerful, all present, always has been and will always be being decided to become a man, a poor, impoverished man–at “Christmas”– who was humiliated, betrayed, tortured and brutally killed, and who forgave the very creatures he created so that they can be part of him forever. That is not only ridiculous, it is worse than a fairytale, it is laughable and pathetic. It just doesn’t make any sense at all. I could never believe in such a thing! Why would one even want to believe such a story? It is childish; it is a way to rationalize the reality that is life. How could any intelligent person even want to believe such a thing!? All I could say was: “I do and I can’t explain it, I can’t prove it. Everytime I go to Divine Liturgy all I know is it is true”.

  10. Christopher Avatar


    Your characterization of the Western mind & Fr. Stephen’s post reminded me of Met. George way of putting it:


  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    At least he managed to clearly understand what the faith actually says. Bravo!

  12. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,
    I could echo much of what Paula wrote about her first experience of the liturgy. I recall vividly calling out to Christ one night begging Him to show me how to pray. But, hard-hearted me, it took 8 or 9 more years to taste of my first liturgy. I was a “goner” too, after my first encounter. But, I know this is not something that automatically occurs. I’ve invited and taken with me several relatives to liturgy over the years. With one exception, none returned (the one became Orthodox after 20 more years!). However, just coming to a liturgy is not “magical.” One’s heart has to be receptive to the wooing of the Holy Spirit. At each liturgy I thank Christ for having brought me into the fullness of faith, where through the liturgy and prayer He let’s me “taste and see that (He)the Lord is good.”

  13. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    This part of the Akathist to the Theotokos seems to express the Mystery of Christmas quite beautifully, so felt moved to share it…


    Seeking to know knowledge unknown, the Virgin cried to him who ministered unto her: “From a chaste womb how can a Son be born? Tell thou me!” Then spake he to her in fear, crying aloud thus:

    Rejoice, thou Initiate of the ineffable counsel.
    Rejoice, thou Faith in that which demandeth silence.
    Rejoice, Prelude of the miracles of Christ.
    Rejoice, Pinnacle of His doctrines.
    Rejoice, heavenly Ladder whereby God came down.
    Rejoice, Bridge leading those of earth to Heaven.
    Rejoice, Marvel far-famed of Angels.
    Rejoice, wounding much-bewailed of demons.
    Rejoice, thou who ineffably gavest birth to the Light.
    Rejoice, thou who didst reveal the mystery to none.
    Rejoice, thou who oversoarest the knowledge of the wise.
    Rejoice, thou who enlightenest the minds of the faithful.
    Rejoice, thou Bride unwedded.

  14. Byron Avatar

    …willing to be broken

    This is easy to imagine (prideful asceticism abounds) but so hard to actually do. We have a church here whose motto is “God wants you to WIN”. They are very successful at bringing people in, as far as I can see. The desire to win is not really the narrow path….

    This is very good writing. I need to read it several more times to absorb it, I think.

  15. Paula Avatar

    Thank you for your reminder that each person’s journey and experience is unique. I should have conveyed that in some way…so thank you. And although we would want that all become Orthodox, we know that is not going to happen…but nonetheless God’s love and care abounds to all!
    Beautiful Akathist! Thanks.
    My horse was much easier to break than I (not that I am even broke yet). You can learn a lot from horse training…for one, for their size and power, they are much more willing to submit than we. In them, I see humility. One of the reasons why I love them so much.

  16. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Byron, indeed those same words caught me too.—willingness to be broken.

    I discovered what real fasting was like a couple weeks ago when I became ill and couldn’t keep anything down. A few days in this condition and my prayers certainly changed and became almost continuous., while in bed. Fearing I had to learn something and realizing I had to trust the healing process to God, I didn’t ask for healing—just ‘thy will be done’. The state was a willing brokenness and a lifting to Chrst. Since then, I’ve been grateful for the experience, and realize in retrospect that such grace would not likely have happened without being broken by the illness, and accepting of that brokenness both in body and spirit.

    I’m grateful for Father’s words and your own about this aspect of the path of communion. Your words have helped me to reflect on this experience in this light.

  17. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Well spell check didn’t catch it.

    My prayers were to Christ.

  18. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Paula I was wondering what ‘your animals’ were. But didn’t want to pry. Wow! Horses. They are amazing creatures.

    Among my teachers of humility are honey bees.

  19. Agata Avatar

    Fr. Tom Hopko had a similar story about a reaction of one person to his lecture/sermon – I wish I remembered in which talk. He always ended the story by saying that he was happy at least this one guy really got *it*!

  20. Paula Avatar

    Honey Bees! Now I will have to read about their behavior…sounds very interesting. I know the Fathers speak a lot about “being like the bee”!
    No worries about prying! Thanks for the opportunity to tell you…,my “family” is large…3 horses (the mom, the dad and their son :-)), a donkey, pot bellied pig, various fowl, 2 dogs, and a cat! They are all a blessing beyond description!
    Father, once again, way off topic…thank you for your patience!

  21. Geri Priscilla Avatar
    Geri Priscilla

    Tavi– a Precommunion prayer of St. John Chrysostom asks for the same thing…to become a manger: “…But as from the heights of thy Glory thou didst humble thyself, so now bear me in my humility; as thou didst deign to lie in a manger in a cave, so deign now also to come into the manger of my mute soul and corrupt body…”

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Foolish me, I first read the word manger as manager. Unfortunately, that is how the faith is often approached.

    One other thing: it is quite easy to dematerialize mystery and knowing. Fundamentally is it not an encounter with the person of Jesus?

    The first Divine Liturgy I attended blew me away too. There was Jesus walking down the aisle with the priest in the Great entrance. Not visually, but in every there way.

    Coming from where I came from it is important to remember that the amorphous gas theory of God is simply untrue. He is not an idea or a feeling. Even the Holy Spirit is a person.

    After all, the Word became flesh. That is perhaps the biggest paradox and mystery of them all, but also the most concrete.

  23. Learning to be still Avatar
    Learning to be still

    Thank you everyone, especially Fr Stephen (of course) for this wonderful blog. I have been reading for years and I think I am beginning to understand, at least a little. Thank you all so much.

  24. Reader Maximus Avatar
    Reader Maximus

    I used to struggle with the Orthodox emphasis on apophaticism. It is so often used as an apologetic trope to orientalize the faith and set it at some distance from an abstract “Western” foil. What most converts don’t realise is that there’s a lot of water under that bridge.

    I think your approach here, though, strikes a healthy and realistic balance. Would that it were encountered more often in the microcosm of American Orthodoxy. Thank you and a blessed Advent to you and yours!

  25. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Belief has a very different meaning in Scripture from what we commonly contribute as a meaning to that word. In the Modern Project belief is reduced to mentally accepting something as fact. If this is true, the Devil is saved because he accepts it as fact that Jesus is Lord, but we know better.
    The English word “believe” stands as a translation of the Greek verb “To Faith.” In English faith is only a noun so the translators are in a quandary as there is no way to translate this directly. In the Elizabethan era, the word “Believe” had a meaning closer to what the Greek verb for faith is saying. It was not pronounced believe but “Be Live” or to live out the convictions of the faith. This is why Saint James says that he will show us his faith through his works.
    In the modern definition of believe Cheap Grace is sold as merely mentally assenting to the facts of Jesus. Nothing can be further from the truth. One must live their faith and the means to do so is Grace. Grace is imparted to us through the sacramental nature of the practice of our faith: The Eucharist, Confession, Prayer, Alms Giving, Fasting etc. We do these things because they change our characters.

  26. Paula Avatar

    The link you provided http://www.greekbible.com in the previous post is quite helpful. After entering a search, I did not understand what to do with the “Greek” until I re-read your instructions about putting the cursor over the word. I find this online tool more helpful than the Interlinear Greek/English NT books I have come across. Also, the fact that there are so many translations of the Bible is problematic, isn’t it.
    Anyway, thank you Nicholas. Your input here is much appreciated!

  27. Byron Avatar

    >After all, the Word became flesh. That is perhaps the biggest paradox and mystery of them all, but also the most concrete.

    Many thanks, Michael! Much of my struggles of late come from forgetting this and getting lost in the “amorphous gas theory of God”. He is Risen; He is here! Glory to God.

  28. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    You are welcome. I find it very helpful and I agree with the many translations issue. It is much easier to simply read the Greek and this site is very helpful for doing that. Even if one tries very hard to be accurate when translating, Greek does not covert directly to English because their verb tenses are different and Greek verbs have moods and voices which English does not. Add to that a natural bend towards seeing our own theological bent in what we translate, even if we try to be neutral a Reformed person is going to see things differently than a Wesleyan or and Orthodox person.

  29. Juliania Avatar

    Wonderful subject and presentation, thank you, Father.

    It was very simple for me. After singing with the choir for some months, I an adult bowed down to the ground during the ceremony on Forgiveness Sunday for the first time in my life, with other adults standing around, and physically re-entered childhood. I can not ever forget the surprising and overwhelming sweetness of that moment.

    ” …and became a little child, our God…”

  30. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Chris, explain what you mean by ignoring doctrinal teachings being ignored.

  31. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    If I could type I would be dangerous. I meant to ask you to explain what you mean Chris about ignoring Church Doctrine

  32. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Chris, I had to put aside my rational understanding of every section of the Creed. Each is beyond me, let alone the whole. There are parts of it that I do not love enough yet to know. But I know because of God’s mercy and His love that He Rose on the third day.

  33. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I am not saying it as an apologetic, just a belief made real to me because if God’s love. The other part of the Creed that I know is that He came down from heaven and was incarnate bt the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.

    The rest I am still working on but Apologetics won’t get me there. Rational exegesis won’t get me there either. God willing, there will be a moment of recognition when I say, “Ooooh, now I see!” If that never comes then I still will know He is.

  34. Eleftheria Avatar

    “I wish I could believe the Creed without interpreting it. Same goes for Scripture.”

    My heart goes out to you, Chris. What I will write is bold, but driven by a heart pained by what you had written… Take your SELF out of the equation…be still and Know that He is

    In Christ,

  35. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    It seems you want to make assertions about what people believe who recite the Nicene Creed. But I’m not sure why you want to be presumptuous about what is believed or what Christians have faith in. Also, what Churches recite the Nicene Creed? The Roman Catholics recite a different Creed from the Orthodox. Therefore I’m not sure it is even appropriate to ascribe the same practice to Churches at large if in practice they recite different things. There has obviously been turmoil in the Church for these differences to exist. Regardless, it seems to presumptuous to assert what others are doing, in their hearts or minds.

    Father Stephen reminds that the “sheep” and “goats” are a division in everyone’s heart. Of all things, I was never told that life was going to be a picnic after my conversion, only a cross. And a cross typically does mean failure at one point or another, hopefully followed by repentance.

    Naturalism is a somewhat quirky concept to me, though I understand it has a following. Again, what I hear of it is that it presumes no God and that ‘nature’ carries on into perpetuity through its own inherent mechanisms without need for the human mind to ‘posit’ the existence of God. If this is your own position, what is your interest to participate Christian blogs? Why would anyone who was convinced of naturalism care what Christians believe or not?

    I guess I’m confused by your comments and not sure I’m getting your point.

  36. Aust_orthodox Avatar

    “It would be possible to “master” Orthodoxy as a system of thought. One could know a set of doctrines and teachings, and even be able to enter into discussion and argument. But this in no way actually constitutes true knowledge of Orthodoxy, much less Orthodoxy as saving knowledge.”

    I see the existence of this “system of thought” in my own life . As a convert of 15 years , I only just saw this as being a reality in my life recently . It was as if I stepped outside myself and saw the purely mechanical method of my daily orthodox life whilst having a frightening sense of the lack of spiritual (heart) reality .
    I glimpsed the empty fake morality and hated it , yet in the light of it all to remove myself from the delusion is to difficult,almost like I’m addicted to the wretchedness or the reality of it seemed to “real” , in the sense that previously the fake mechanical man was manageable whilst this call to reality seems to require frighteningly more than I have to give freely .I wonder if it’s more about the unsettling nature of that reality . Like the rules have changed or the goal posts in my mind have shifted . I’m frightened at the insecurity this has caused within me as if Christ would say ” I never knew you ” and whilst it would seem correct for me to respond “fair enough” , I know out of desperation I would argue “but I this “& ” but I that ” .
    Will I ever truly know Him? Do I truly want to know him ?
    Going to church , prayer , taking communion all seem different to me now . Like I’m an imposter or con man trying to convince myself ” do this and your all sorted”.I still go though .
    Where does one go from here . I can’t leave the church, (where would I go) but I want it on my terms and I know it can’t be sustainable under these conditions . I can’t serve to masters , or can I?

    What’s left to say but Lord have mercy on me sinner , I believe help my unbelief .

    Pray for me please lest I fall into unbelief.

  37. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    As I am watching this conversation develop I am struck with the impression that we are still trying to understand “believe” as mentally accept and the question is whether or not we mentally accept the tenets of the Creed. The word, in Greek, we translate as “I believe” is “Pistevo,” which is the 1st person singular Present Active Indicative of the verb “to faith.” Faith, in Greek, is something you do. It is an active verb. When you say “I believe in One God” you are saying that the conduct of your life reflects this. Everything the Lord has commanded that we do are actions, not mental agreements. As I discussed in an earlier post the Greek word for “love” in view in most of Scripture is not a feeling but an action for the benefit of another at the expense of self.
    Our Faith is what we do whether it is to “love” the Lord our God (love being the action verb of doing at the expense of self….a martyr can say they accepted their martyrdom as an act to do for God at the expense of self), or self sacrificing our needs for the benefit of a neighbor. Everything in our faith is about doing something which is why Saint James says he will show you his faith by his works. This is why we move in worship. We DO worship with our bodies, minds and souls. We cross ourselves, bow, prostrate, stand before the King, kiss icons etc. We bake prosphora and offer it, we put our tithes in the tithe box, we visit the sick. All of this is doing not agreeing to a concept.
    We care for others, by making them disciples, feeding them, clothing them and sheltering them. All of these things are the actions called for by the verb “Pistevo.” If you “Faith” in One God, you DO His commandments. It does not matter one iota if you accept Him as One God mentally if you do not DO what He commands.
    English is a crummy language for theology because for all the words we have, the ones for theology are weak and we have few that convey the real meanings of our faith. I have a friend who is a Philologist (Philology is the study of language) who says English is a shop keepers language designed to cheat people in because it is so easy to say one thing and mean another. This discussion is a perfect example of the fog our language creates in our faith. I, myself, have to re remind myself daily what certain words like “love” and “faith” really mean in order to stay on track.

  38. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    That is NOT what the Greek verb means. You are using a modern definition. The Creed is 1700 years old and the verb means that you act out your faith. Language has changed, but the original meaning is what matters. When you die you are not going to be giving a theology exam to see what you “believe” in the modern sense. The actions of your life, the living out of your faith, is all that will matter. Consider the parable of the Ten Talents. The fellow who DID nothing with the Talent he was given was severely chastised. The two that DID something we rewarded.

  39. Byron Avatar

    Where does one go from here .

    Aust_orthodox, I am reminded of the story of the monk who went to his bishop saying, “I have lost my faith!”. His bishop’s reply was, “It does not matter, go an pray and take part in the worship; you will find it again.” (or something to that effect). He did so and he found “his faith” again.

    In some ways, your statement ties in directly with Nicholas’ explanation of the meaning of “faith”. It is the actions of our lives that shape our hearts (the heart follows, as Fr. Stephen has said). We continue, not because everything we do is validated in this life, but because we know that God is good and He does not leave us. So we give thanks even in the difficult times, the times in the desert undergoing life’s trials and temptations, because we know God is with us. He will shape our lives and our hearts according to His love. And it will be good. I hope this helps. Blessings and prayers for you!

  40. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    I am not offended in any way so no need to apologize. It is an important point to ponder as to what “believing” in God really means to us. When I was a Protestant Evangelical Pastor we taught belief in the modern sense and told people if they “believed” they were saved. The problem for me began when I saw people who “believed”, thought they were saved and yet continued to live the same way as they did before…..basically in sin. In one year I baptized 210 people and yet within a short time many were in jail or fell away. I realized what I was really doing was selling fake “Eternal Fire Insurance” Policies for the low low price of one Sinner’s Prayer. Apparently they had a vanishing premium option in the policy. Then I learned Greek and the rest is history of why I came to Orthodoxy. To say it in a short way, it is because in Orthodoxy we are supposed to practice what we preach or be Holy as He is Holy. Remember, faith without works is dead and we are still dead if all we have is a mental acceptance of the tenets of the faith. Yes, we accept the facts of faith but we have to live it…Be Live it, to experience transformation and healing through Grace.

  41. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    I have found that often in the Heterodox world that the articles of faith are treated as if they are dishes in a smorgasbord. There under the sneeze shield is all of the faith laid out and the individual believer picks what dishes they like and rejects the rest. That is how we can have 3 1/2 point Calvinists. In my mind one is either a full up 5 point Calvinist or they are not a Calvinist at all.

  42. Dean Avatar

    To Greek speaking friends,
    Since the Greek language comes up often, at least in this thread, I’d like your feedback on this. I was speaking a while back to a Greek Orthodox man, born and raised in Greece. I asked him this…If an unchurched Greek from Athens enters into an Orthodox church there, how much of the liturgy will he/ she understand? This well-educated businessman replied, “I would say about 40%.” I imagine this is because all languages evolve, the reason King James English, or Chaucer seem so foreign to us. I know Greek has also changed much through the centuries, thinking of classical or Koine Greek. Comments please.

  43. Paula Avatar

    I appreciate your thoughts about the difficulty of interpreting the original meaning of words. In Barfield’s History in English Words. he describes how the meaning of words have actually changed (more like morphed) in accordance to humanity’s change of consciousness (i.e. modernity). Considering the impact of this change of consciousness perhaps will help us even better understand why we stumble over trying to “interpret” the words of the Creed….and also why we depend on our teachers (who are aware of language/societal changes) to lead us to its proper understanding.
    Just a thought from a non Greek speaker 😉

  44. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Pure gold: “What passes for “theology” can easily be little more than one swine discussing pearls with another.”

    And I greatly appreciate you expounding on the different types of knowledge. I was thinking recently that smartphones have made us more connected than ever – and yet simultaneously more lonely than ever. I suspect the main reason is that we have all the (I will call it) flat knowledge we could ever dream of but in order to obtain it we trade in some much 3D, real and deep knowledge.

  45. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    40% seems a generous estimate for people raised in the urban areas of Greece. The more rural an area the closer the Greek is to Koine Greek. Greek, like all languages has evolved and new words added, old ones forgotten. I asked a Russian Seminarian how hard it was for him to learn Slavonic and his answer was mostly it was a matter of learning the new vocabulary. When I asked a Greek the same question it was not only a matter of vocabulary but also grammar. I personally, do not know modern Greek so I had to take the man’s word.

  46. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    It is quite difficult at times even for people who can read Greek to make it come out in English and carry the same meaning. Consider the word in the Nicene Creed we render “Almighty.” Actually this word does not mean that nor is it and adjective like it appears to be in English. The word is “Pantakratora” in Greek. First, it is a noun, a Nominative Masculine Singular Noun of the 1st Declension, meaning it is a Subject Noun, not an adjective. It is a compound noun composed of two parts, panta meaning all and the noun cognate of the verb kratayo which means controlling by holding in one’s hands…like controlling a team of horses with a set of reins. Now, make that read smoothly in English. Almighty was chosen because the Greek Title for God the Father as it echoes the meaning of the Hebrew name for God El Shaddai. The fact that most people think this is an adjective describing Father is more of a problem in actually understanding that the Fathers at Nicea worded this to indicate the Father is the source of all and controls all.

  47. Paula Avatar

    Good point Nicholas.
    Your comment reminds me of what you said earlier…
    “I have a friend who is a Philologist (Philology is the study of language) who says English is a shop keepers language designed to cheat people in because it is so easy to say one thing and mean another. This discussion is a perfect example of the fog our language creates in our faith.”

  48. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Duely noted. I’ll not argue the point with you, other than to say the entire body of patristic writing would seem, somehow, to belong to your idea of the “modern” project. I appreciate your being clear and candid. As to whether I am the best example of someone who is, in fact, a harbinger of modernity, and thus, in your estimation, a danger, I will leave in the hands of those to whom I am answerable and to God.

    I think you are not only profoundly wrong, but have, for some reason, acquired a jaundiced view of what I am about.

    I agree about what is held in the hand of a child. However, a child holds things much differently (in my experience) than I see within adults in the modern world.

  49. Paula Avatar

    Ever since the birth of Christianity there have been those who’ve searched for the deeper meaning…not just of the text, but in search for God. The ones who literally set their face to this endeavor went into the desert where the whole monastic order was birthed. The search for deeper meaning does not coincide with the modern project. And if it were not for those in the Church who seek such things, we’d be just another denomination among the thousands who are content to interpret scripture “as they see it”. Just hang another shingle…sit through another Bible Study only to learn just another new opinion.
    Chris, it is not “the text” that speaks to us, as if mere words have life within themselves. The Church, Her tradition is that which brings life to the text, handed down from those who sought the fullness of scripture, who teach us how to actually live these words you say are sufficient in themselves.
    Lastly, we are extremely thankful for Father Stephen to take the time, with such patience and sincerity, to teach us what he knows. How am I to respond to your criticism but by the way that I am doing now. Forgive me, but I do not understand the point of it all except to say you disagree. Well, ok. I get that.

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thanks for clarifying. There is a very, very long tradition (even in the NT) in which finding the meaning “beneath” the literal text is practiced. It is the source of pretty much the whole of “mystical theology.” It differs deeply from the abuse of language engaged in by modern liberals. But the “plain text,” commonly invoked by Protestant conservatives of various sorts, also belongs to a modern world-view rather than to the tradition of the Church.

    It is easily the case, however, that the “plain text” can save. Taking things at face value will generally not cause problems. There are depths beneath the letter to be explored and known. That depth, however, has to be weighed and seen in the strict light of Tradition – and never just out of someone’s head.

    It’s one of the reasons that I write in obedience – with the blessing of my bishop and in submission to the Church. I refrain from ecclesiastic scandal and comment for the same reason. I make mistakes or sometimes go down a wrong path. Fortunately, there are not only bishops and priests who read me (most of them comment privately), but the larger community of readers also do a good job of engaging and bringing about a better result.

    I think that the common sentiment that I see here that my comments are often better than the article reflect that reality.

    Thanks ever so much. Be blessed.

  51. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Just a word to all. Don’t rush to defend me. It’s all good and I appreciate Chris’ thoughts. It’s ok here to call me out.

    It’s easy for others to forget, but I’m a married man with adult children. I’m used to being corrected. 🙂

  52. Paula Avatar

    Father, Chris….
    Forgive me…yes, I did “rush”.

  53. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Chris Russel,
    In the blog sphere there isn’t always enough context to place someone’s words to understand what a person is saying. As this conversation has played itself out I have gained a greater understanding of your point. It isn’t necessarily that you’re seen as being disagreeable, but if one is attempting to warn, as I sense your intention now, sometimes it might be helpful to say in the beginning of your comments, that what you said to Fr Stephen in the end of this string.

    I have learned greatly from your participation here. Thank you for it!

  54. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. It is important, I think, to be clear by what I mean when I say “mystery.” St. Paul uses the term for the whole revelation of the Kingdom of God – something that was “hidden” from before the ages, but is now being made known.

    I would say that “what you see is what you get” is far too little. What we are being given in Christ is beyond words (“Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has the mind conceived the good things that God has prepared for those who love Him). The term “mystery” was frequently used by the Fathers. Thus we pray in the Liturgy, “I will not speak of Thy mysteries to Thine enemies…”

    The “mystery” is not a vague, shapeless sort of imagination. It is more concrete and real than everything we call “reality” because it is eternal. It is “hidden” but is being made manifest. Every miracle of Jesus’ ministry was a revealing of this hidden mystery.

    He spoke in parables, I think (as suggested in Luke 8:10) to hide the reality from those whose hearts were hardened, and yet to reveal that reality to those whose hearts were ready.

    For myself, my only interest in the mystery is because it is more real – not less. Even if that reality is sometimes so great that we can bearly express it. St. Paul heard things that he described as “unlawful to be uttered.”

    Whatever there is of the faith that is true (which is the whole faith), it is greater than we are, larger than we are, beyond compare with what we know. We are being drawn into that larger life by Christ.

    I grew up among American fundamentalists. They are some of the least imaginative people I’ve ever known. No art, no beauty, just plain. Plain churches, plain singing, plain thinking. No mystery, no wonder, just a matter of fact God who would send you to hell if you didn’t live right. My wife grew up in a similar culture – both of us, in our own ways, felt we would simply dry up and blow away if we stayed in it.

    Orthodoxy is beautiful, full of wonder, always drawing us towards a larger life, the fullness of existence. It is water in the desert, air in a vacuum, light in the darkness. Thank God!

  55. Karen Avatar

    Chris, thanks for the responses giving us a bit more context for your comments. I guess when it comes to explaining the basic surface meaning of the plain text of a Scripture like Luke 8:10, the fundamentalist and the Orthodox will often agree. 😉 In reading Scripture, we all have to start somewhere, and we all start with the plain text. Thankfully, for the Orthodox, it doesn’t need to end there (which was a relief to me, since I was frustrated in my attempts to gain a coherent framework within which to understand the Scriptures within mainline and Evangelical Protestantism). For the Orthodox, I found there already exists a coherent context of interpretation in the Liturgy that is missing in varying degrees outside the Orthodox Church. If you want to enter that mystery a bit more, perhaps start attending the Orthodox Liturgy if you can. If that’s not an option, I’d like to recommend the book Everyday Saints for a glimpse at what living this mystery can look like in the modern world.

    Here’s an excerpt:

  56. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I hardly know how to respond.

    To be fair, I suspect that the fundamentalist you listened to said nothing about “mystery” in the manner that I did. I would be quite surprised. But the notion that the parables “hide” the gospel from some and “reveal” it to others, isn’t my point or theirs, it’s just in the text. The real separation would come if we began to talk about “why” it is hidden from some and revealed to others. I know what a Calvinist would do with it.

  57. Diana Welsch Avatar
    Diana Welsch

    As I was doing my daily reading this morning (Mark 9:10-16) I noticed a note in the margins from my days as a religious studies major (pre-Orthodoxy.) “Major theme in Mark: can you handle the truth?” I love that….isn’t that what it’s all about for us who believe and those who don’t? I pray every day that they find the one true God.

  58. Thomas B Avatar
    Thomas B


    Late to the comment, but for what it’s worth, of by understanding you mean “knowing what the words mean intellectually”, the distinction is between those Greeks or otherwise Greek speaking people who have received a Classical education involving Ancient Greek and Latin and those (like me) who haven’t.

    Some Ancient Greek is being taught to all high schools until the age of 15. Maybe this is no longer the case; the educational system has been ‘reformed and modernised’ on average every 3 years and steadily removing the polytonic writing (I’m 38 and didn’t learn how to write in it).

    The consequences of this spiritually are similar to the destruction in mathematical ability caused by American schools removing Geometry from their curriculum. Even if the percentage is 99%, for the very few, it is a huge shame. English speaking people not understanding Shakespeare and Greeks reciting the Creed not knowing what it means.

    The product of Modernity is made manifest every Sunday in the looks of the faces of churchgoers listening to the liturgy with eyes like a dead fish.

    There is hope in that we have been here before, Russians know it all too well, and yet we keep going back to our faith and learning what it means. It is a struggle, word for word.

    I am thankful to you all for your passionate search for Truth, for the “ων” even if it is untranslatable.

    @Nicholas: your Stavropegic translation was very eloquent and I’m sure it will just roll off the mouth 🙂

  59. Thomas B Avatar
    Thomas B


    You weren’t a religious study major around the time of “a few good men” now, were you?

    So this is what Jack Nicholson was channeling when he was delivering his dramatic peak speech…

  60. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    This is a recent lecture by Archbishop Michael given at Saint Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary which speaks to the issue of taking the words of the Bible at face value and the importance of the Church and the holy Fathers in helping us to understand their deeper meaning.

    “What is the Bible?”


  61. Dean Avatar

    Thomas B.
    Thanks. Your paragraph ending with…”listening to the liturgy with eyes like a dead fish,” is a wonderful simile! I’ve seen that glazed over look quite often myself. 🙂 But as long as the Lord can make even dead stones praise Him, there is hope.

  62. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Thomas B
    In Acroneese (A language spoken in the military that is composed of Acronyms) it is DRU which does roll off the tongue.

  63. Thomas B Avatar
    Thomas B

    Roger that, Nicholas.

    Dean, we have the Australian cricket (like baseball, only it takes weeks to finish) commentators to thank for this sledging simile.

    I cross myself as some of you advised on this blog, but still think I look like a dear caught in headlights and wondering what is happening now. Children just enjoy liturgy and you wonder: where did it all go wrong?

    I blame my education.

  64. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Do I understand you correctly the woman was a priest and atheist?

    This scenario isn’t something I’ve seen in Orthodoxy. However, I’m not one to judge someone else’s heart, it may be there are Orthodox priests who may not have faith.

  65. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    What you describe is not “deeper meaning.” It’s just “wrong meaning,” in order to avoid the truth. It is wrong to paint everybody who speaks about a deeper meaning with the same brush. It is naive and unjust. Liberals are not masters of the tradition of deeper meaning. They are masters of prevarication, lies and dissimulation. There is an actual tradition of the real thing, found in the Fathers and the tradition of the Orthodox Church. The point is to follow the path marked by the saints and to live in true harmony with it. What I do is not to create new meanings, new abstractions, etc., much less to depart from that which we have received from the beginning. It is the path of the Fathers – found within the NT itself.

    It is, by the way, disturbing to have your work compared to atheist, liberal ministers. I understand your point about abuse – but I would suggest that you think more carefully what your comments infer. They give offense. A proper way, I think, to ask the question would be to ask how the NT and early Tradition’s use of “deeper” meaning differs from what some modern liberals do. I paid a rather high price to leave the liberal fold of the Episcopal Church and have engaged all of my life in a struggle against their deceptions. Get a smaller brush and ask respectful questions.

  66. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    If my memory serves me I remember your interest in universalism. Fr Stephen has been rather consistent about his reflections on what the Fathers say, about salvation, which you seem to have a desire to place in the category of universalism. Father Stephen had not called himself that term. But it seems you to want to ‘tag’ him with it.

    I must agree the tone of your writing is difficult to interpret. It seems to go beyond merely confrontational, but accusatory.
    Again it isn’t clear what your point is if you have so little respect for what is written here. It’s as though your main desire is to poke and not so much to learn.

  67. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Specifically the terms ‘deviant strain of Orthodoxy’ is the ‘poke’.
    You have said of yourself that you haven’t read or studied the writings of the Fathers but at the same time feel as if you are in a position to judge what is deviant or not.

  68. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Chris any group that has female priests is no longer Christian no matter what they say.

    Mystical theology is quite in tune with the Scriptures. It is simply about describing inadequately the union with Christ that is the life of the Church. The epitome of this is Jesus prayer for us in John 17. Actually it is everywhere once the reality of Jesus Christ as fully man and fully God-a logical impossibility-begins to sink in.

    Mystical theology is simply the recognition that God can and does reveal Himself in all things at all times if we but have the eyes to see. That revelation is often paradoxical or seems so. As in the fact that in the midst of the greatest pain in my life(the death of my wife), I experienced my greatest joy ever(a sure and certain knowledge of His Ressurection). Somehow that pain and that joy are inextricably bound together in my heart. They are not mixed or confused. One does not overpower the other.

    Our conscious, rational mind is but one aspect of our being. In union with Christ we are allowed to know the wholeness of who we are, even our sinfulness and shame, as we are gradually Ressurected and made whole.

    I can kick against the pricks all I want and I do. Still the grace of Christ continues to break through and remind me that He is with us.

  69. Karen Avatar

    Chris, I’m inclined to agree with Dee about the irony of your never having read or studied the most important early thinkers and leaders in the Church (the Fathers), immersed as they were in the Apostolic teaching/tradition and in all of the Scriptures, and yet feeling you are in a position to judge what is deviant or not in interpretation of the Scriptures or of any particular Christian tradition. I’m getting the sense from your comments your sympathies lie with the modern Fundamentalist’s approach to the Scriptures, and I speculate perhaps you are just chafing a bit at Fr. Stephen’s labeling this (in various posts and comments on his blog) as also modern and just the flip side of the coin to modern liberalism. If that is the case (and I mean this quite sincerely), perhaps you should just go and attempt to be the best, most faithful Fundamentalist Christian you can be and seriously seek to understand and obey all of Christ’s commands as best you can. It’s a sin to violate your own conscience, after all. (Forgive my presumption if I’m reading you wrong here.)

    As I said, I’m quite sincere in this suggestion (should it apply)–my understanding and experience is if we genuinely want to understand the Scriptures in more depth, the key is to seriously attempt to live what we do understand (i.e., seek to obey Christ’s commands). As I wrote before, the plain surface meaning of the gospel is where we all have to start. We first need an encounter with the risen Lord, Jesus Christ, which we will not have unless we truly want and seek it from the depths of our own heart (Jeremiah 29:13).

    Surely without Christ, we can’t rightly understand anything or anyone else (at least not in anything like their fullness and depth)? As Luke 24 shows, He is the One who opens our minds to rightly understand the Scriptures and bring us out of the dark. (It was Fr. Stephen on his blog who drew my attention to that passage and its import in a deeper way.) You write you are “open to all opinions in the dark.” I want to ask, really? Why? And what does this affirmation really mean when it follows a statement that seems to infer that a suggestion of a deeper meaning in the Scriptures that doesn’t immediately jive with your own “plain sense” reading of either the Scriptures or the historical Christian doctrinal tradition has to be disingenuous?

  70. Karen Avatar

    Chris, hopefully it’s clear I posted my last comment before reading the last couple of yours, and you will read it in that context. Thanks for clarifying again a bit more of where you’re coming from. There’s a pretty big disjunction between the implications of “mystery” in Eastern Orthodox tradition and in the Western post-Schism traditions. They are not the same thing. Truly we might as well be speaking different languages. Michael’s comment is a helpful one it seems to me. Hopefully, Everyday Saints will be even more helpful. Also, begin attending the Liturgy (or Vespers) in an Orthodox parish if you can because our Scriptural “mystical” exegesis is largely in our hymnody. It’s helpful to let yourself steep in that awhile. I’ve been Orthodox for over ten years now (Evangelical Protestant before). Forgive our jumping to wrong conclusions in comments here. It’s easy to forget this far down the road how many hurdles and misconceptions there can be to overcome to finally start to learn a new, more truly and fully biblical theological language genuinely grounded in the patristic, classical Christian tradition. Although, the mainline denomination I attended in childhood has slipped into the kind of liberalism you describe suffering under, it wasn’t that way when I was a child (in the 60s), so I’ve never had to suffer what you endured. It’s easy, with those differences, to “talk” past one another on a blog comments thread like this.

    Another book that was helpful to me when I was exploring Orthodoxy was Common Ground: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity for the American Christian by Jordan Bajis. (It might as well have been subtitled “. . . for the Western Christian”–it’s helpful for any English-speaking Christian raised in a Western Christian tradition, not just Americans.) According to the Priest that received me into the Orthodox Church who was from the same background, Dr. Bajis was in one of the churches that used to be part of a group of Evangelicals, most of them coming out of leadership in Campus Crusade for Christ, who recognized evangelism and discipleship properly were the job of the Church (local congregations), not a parachurch ministry, and began to try to reconstruct together what the NT Church actually should be by studying Church history. They ended up forming local congregations and eventually conforming themselves to Eastern Orthodox dogma and liturgical practice through this study, and called themselves the Evangelical Orthodox Church. Most of them elected to enter canonical Eastern Orthodoxy in the late 1980s, coming under the Antiochian Orthodox patriarchate based in Syria (although Dr. Bajis’ church and a few others remained independent).

  71. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I would agree that whatever is done should be consistent with Scripture. I am not a universalist and have written quite clearly about my understanding in that matter. I think, following a number of the major fathers of the Church that we may “hope” that all may be saved, but we cannot say that nor teach it. That is perfectly consistent with the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church. Hell is actual and a real danger –

    St. Paul, in Galatians, uses “allegory” – that’s his Greek word, and gives a mystical interpretation regarding Sarah and Hagar. Indeed, almost the entire body of Orthodox Christian reading of the OT can be described as “mystical.” “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us” is a mystical interpretation of Passover. Christ says that He is the meaning of the OT: “These are they that testify of me.” That has only ever been understood (among the Orthodox) as teaching a “Christological/Mystical” reading of the OT.

    I would say that the key is to read the Scriptures consistent with Christ and His Pascha. He is the meaning of everything.

    Can a “deeper” reading be abused? Absolutely, and it has always presented a problem that has to be dealt with. The answer, however, is not a literalism – there really is no such thing. Those who claim to be literalists are themselves guided by a “deeper” meaning that is generally false – but they pretend that what they are doing is “Bible Theology.”

    How would I judge such abuse. By appeal to the Tradition of the faith. I’ll use the example of universalism. St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Issac of Syria, and possibly a number of earlier fathers certainly held to such a notion – that when all was said and done:

    Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. For “He has put all things under His feet.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all. (1 Cor. 15:24-28)

    The teachings attributed to Origen were condemned by the 5th council and a letter of Justinian. No censure has ever been extended towards St. Gregory of Nyssa or St. Isaac, or others who wrote or preached in that manner. Again, I think that the most that can be expressed in that matter is “hope.” More than that is something we do not know. But, in terms of Scripture, you look at the passage from 1Cor. 15 and you look at the verses regarding hell – and you come up with a bit of an impasse. Instead of completely dismissing 1Cor. 15, or putting a huge asterisk beside it, I simply say that between the two, we may hope – nothing more.

    Having said that, we live, not by hoping to escape anything – but completely certain that all will be judged. Neither St. Isaac nor St. Gregory (nor any other Father) ever taught that there was no hell nor that no one goes there. They have simply said that even hell has a limit – which is not inconsistent with the Greek word, translated as “eternal” but means, in some cases, “age-long.” That is not a deviant strain of Orthodoxy. It is not, however, the majority position, nor is it mine. But I respect it and will not fight nor condemn it. Who am I to take on such men? St. Gregory of Nyssa was described as the “Father of Fathers” by a later council.

    If something is to be “consistent with Scripture” then we have to look at all of Scripture. Including its problems.

  72. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    No one has said “mystic” of anybody – including Jesus. That word has a very different meaning than the older sense that is common in Orthodoxy. If you wanted to do some serious reading on the topic, then I can recommend nothing better than Fr. Andrew Louth’s book, Discerning the Mystery. There you’ll find a very thorough examination of the topic – including its place in the Scriptures and in the life and teaching of the Church. Fr. Andrew is a protege of Met. Kallistos Ware, and a Professor of Patristics at the Univ. of Durham in England, recognized as one of the major figures in Orthodox scholarship. My use of the term is utterly consistent with his work. If possible, I try never to be creative. 🙂

  73. Karen Avatar

    Chris, wow! Thanks…I think.

    “Unbeliever” actively involved for over ten years in an Antiochian parish. Something is dreadfully wrong with this picture. You must feel quite lost. I hope Fr. Stephen’s last comment was helpful, but I suspect it will take a lot more than that to sort out your apparent confusion. Yes, removing this part of the comments thread may be in order. It seems to have just been a distraction. For what? I’m not sure. May God bless and keep you in His care.

  74. Paula Avatar

    Deleting your comments will not delete you…we are all together in this “mystical” union. That said, I in no way understand how you can say you are an unbeliever and at the same time be Orthodox. So with hope, I am going to assume you indeed believe. Now, if you mean you do not believe every single thing that is taught in Orthodoxy (as far as you can comprehend the teachings), well that I can understand. Can we ever fully understand all of it? This goes back to “words” and the unending depth of their meaning…at some point when they fail us, most of us continue to pursue until we are blessed to find that silence speaks best. I think most of us are in that very large space between. In that respect (and more) you are no different that anyone else, here or anywhere you may find yourself.
    Just as you say you are “learning a good deal from us all”…so am I…and that includes your input as well. I can not isolate myself from those who I disagree with and continue to learn how to be as Christ would have us, that being “in communion” with all as He is gathering all to Himself. I will miss that boat completely if I isolate. By that I mean in my heart. You say you went to the bush…I am in a rural area too and am by no means a social butterfly, but I do have a sense of connection with others, all others. I have a long way to go in this, as we say, transformation, and it is not easy. I look to those here that have been in the Church many years and I treasure what they have to say…and am also thankful for accepting my inadequacies with grace. So Chris, if you leave here, go in peace I pray. Many of us leave this earth without all the answers…but even in our repose it is always a beginning…ever moving closer to Him.

  75. Karen Avatar

    Paula, some very good points there. Thanks. As soon as I made my last comment to Chris, I was reminded that at the head of every list of sins I find I need to confess is some form of unbelief! I think we “believers” can always confess a very mixed mindset, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” Perhaps that was indeed what Chris meant. Depending on what has had my attention and my focus (whether worldly woes or more uplifting things), I can draw perilously close to abandoning faith altogether sometimes myself (except I know deep in my soul there is nowhere but Christ to turn to). Books like Everyday Saints are a great antidote when I’m trapped in that kind of “stinking thinking.” Yes, we’re all in this together. Thank God for the Church welcoming even us sinners!

  76. Paula Avatar

    “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” Oh I know what you mean! It is a comfort to know that Christ knows us better than we know ourselves…and His love doesn’t change! It can’t! Yes, thank God for the Church!
    I’m glad you responded…I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed that article from Everyday Saints. I didn’t want it to end. What a beautiful commemoration to Fr. John . I noticed that book for sale at our Church’s bookstore…I am going to buy it for sure. I must say, I truly laughed hard about the story about the monk in the hospital and the TV!
    Thanks Karen!

  77. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I cannot take exception to this last comment. 🙂

    The “hope” referred by Met. Kallistos indeed rests on mystery, paradox and contradiction – and a list of Church fathers that is quite impressive – enough to allow someone to use the word “hope.”

    But I’ll not argue the point further and will be glad to give it a rest.

  78. Paula Avatar

    “that (sic)” …oops! 🙂

  79. Karen Avatar


    Re: the use of the term “mystical” in the tradition, in the Cherubic Hymn, we sing “We who mystically represent the Cherubim…”. Could you comment on what is being communicated here that would also help clarify the tradition’s use of the term?

    I may have mentioned before in my former Evangelical Church, the pastor would preface the distribution of the crackers and grape juice for “the Lord’s Supper”‘by explicitly saying, “These elements are not magical; they are not mystical” and even though at the time I was in agreement with Zwinglian theology, I think it was at this point this form of “communion” completely lost its meaning for me. I can certainly still agree the Holy Gifts are not “magical,” but I also know that if I do not truly eat and drink Christ in this ritual (albeit “in a mystery”), it is empty and in vain!

  80. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Dn. Nicholas,

    Thank you for your comment about jet pilots riding it to the ground instead of ejecting. That was a beautiful illustration of how we resist dying to Christ.

  81. Paula Avatar

    Chris, Karen
    Pardon me for butting in….
    In answer to your question “who are we to….”, Chris…..I do not see anywhere in Scripture where we are forbidden to ask questions. Is not Christ our Teacher (Master, Rabbi, Prophet, Priest) as much as our Savior? The times Christ rebuked questions is when it came from hearts who were looking to purposefully prove that He is not the Son of God…they were looking to trip Him up deceptively and He knew it. He knows our limitations even now in “language” and He knows the heart that longs for Him…that is why it is perfectly fine to ask questions. “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me…”

  82. Karen Avatar


    Re: the Body and Blood
    Good point, but it’s a problem in the modern world, nonetheless, we are going to have to faithfully try to deal with. Even the early Fathers had to discuss this. The early Church was being accused of cannibalism, after all. Of course, beyond Christ’s words we cannot explain what the Holy Gifts become in the Eucharist. I believe we *can* in good Orthodox fashion, however, explain what they are *not* in order to put our dogmatic stake in the ground. My point about my former pastor was his conflation of magical and mystical as being essentially the same alchemist occult thing, which is how this tends to be understood in the West.

    I’m tempted to ask (with tongue in cheek), “What’s it to you, anyway, since you are an unbeliever?” 😉

    Your last comment seems to me to just expose your own lack of comprehension or prejudice (battle scars from your close encounter with liberal mainline madness perhaps). Peace.

  83. Karen Avatar

    Father, thank you for this wonderful, concise explanation in answer to my question. These matters do eventually intuitively eventually come through for the one attentive to the Liturgy and teaching of the Church. It is often hard to articulate, though.

    Chris, I can’t add to what Father has written to you here and in the other thread. It applies, from what I can see.

    Regarding your suggestion that trying to more fully understand or properly articulate the proper teaching of the Church regarding the Eucharist (or anything else) vs. the errors of modernism would be like trying to have an esoteric discussion with Jesus in the Upper Room as He was instituting the Eucharist is completely wrong-headed and betrays a very selective lens through which you are looking at this. Maybe think a little more about what is being said here using John 6:35ff and the account of the Bereans in Acts I mentioned in the other thread as your reference. I could also point to numerous references throughout the Gospels of the Twelve needing further and more explicit explanation again and again of Christ’s parables and all He was trying to do and teach. He sometimes got exasperated with their thick-headed stupidity, but He didn’t give up working with them nor did it keep Him from calling them His friends. Their incredulity and questioning, as I think Paula pointed out, wasn’t like that of the Pharisees who opposed Christ.

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