Note: This summer I have the privilege of conducting an independent study with Dr. Hughes Oliphant Old, professor of reformed liturgics at Erskine Theological Seminary who also used to lecture at Princeton Theological Seminary. As part of that study, I have been reading a number of books related to our studies of Christian worship. I will attempt to post my summaries of those books as I complete them. Here is the third.
The Vision of God by Vladimir Lossky
Vladimir Lossky’s The Vision of God is an intriguing historical study concerning how a number of church fathers, leading up through the Byzantine tradition, have sought to reconcile the complete “otherness” and incomprehensibility of God in his essence with the promise and hope of in some sense seeing, comprehending, and even partaking of that “divinity.” Lossky notes that by “vision of God” we mean “theology” in its most basic sense: that is, knowing God.
Lossky begins by noting this great mystery and question in Scripture, the promise that at some point the people of God shall “see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2) coupled with the statements that God has not been seen at any time (Jn. 4:12) nor can he be seen (1 Tim. 6:16). There are various ways of tackling this tension. Some have differentiated between the present unperfected state and the final glorified, beatific state. Others insist that a distinction must be made between God’s essence and his “energies,” distinguishing that aspect of God which truly is unknowable and that which may be revealed and partaken of by creatures. At the heart of this conversation are of course questions of ontology and epistemology, basic presuppositions concerning being and knowing. And this, Lossky maintains, is central to why many more recent western theologians (16th and 17th century theologians and their successors) have misunderstood the Byzantine tradition on this subject. Working from a late medieval scholastic framework, these later theologians see the denial of a “vision of God” in his essence in the early eastern Fathers culminating in Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) as an incomprehensible error, particularly as the western tradition had formulated a very favorable affirmation of the possibility and hope of seeing God. Lossky suggests that this misjudgment is rooted in a clash of philosophies and terminology as well as an unwillingness to give charitable readings to theologians in a different tradition on a difficult subject matter.
From this introduction, Lossky proceeds through a brief sketch of the biblical data relevant to the question of a “vision of God.” Clearly such an idea is prevalent throughout the Scriptures. From the reoccurring “angel of Yahweh” or “angel of the Presence” to the experiences and aspirations of Moses and Job there is a clear expectation and understanding that while such an experience might be frightful it is one to be desired and one which human creatures are in some sense capable of. Lossky finishes this section noting that one of the important New Testament texts is found in 1 Corinthians 13 where the context concerns Paul’s theology of love. Here, the apostle insists upon a right relationship between love and knowledge, maintaining that the former is a necessary prerequisite for the latter. And therefore the statement concerning our “face to face” knowing and the promise that “I shall know just as I also am known” (13:12) must be understood in the context of this love-based knowing. Lossky says, “An object is known; this is an imperfect knowledge in which there is no reciprocity; where there is reciprocity of knowledge, knowledge signifies a relationship between persons, it is determined by [agape]” (p. 31).
At this point, Lossky begins his historical overview, summoning up a number of witnesses for examination to consider the views on “vision theology.” He begins with several early church fathers (prior to Byzantine theology proper) and then traces significant themes up through the centuries. St. Theophilus of Antioch (late 2nd century), writing from such an early period, is not working with a highly developed terminology to describe what he means. Nevertheless, Lossky suggests that Theophilus puts most of his emphasis on the eschatological reality of a vision of God, that is, at the resurrection the Christian will experience a manifestation of God “to the extent that he has become worthy of seeing Him.” However, while there is no “direct vision” yet, Theophilus does acknowledge the present/historical manifestation of God in creation and particularly in and through the Son and the Holy Spirit. St. Irenaeus of Lyon writing around the same time, follows Theophilus by emphasizing the present revelation of the unknowable nature of God in the Incarnation. He says, “The Father is the invisible nature of the Son, while the Son is the visible nature of the Father” (p. 36). Irenaeus develops this in a distinctly Trinitarian direction: There is a “prophetic vision” of God through the Holy Spirit re-establishing the image of God in mankind, there is the “vision of adoption” which the Son secures, and finally a “vision of the Father” which will occur at the resurrection. This final vision Irenaeus seems to suggest is causally related to the life of the resurrection. What formerly humans could not see will now become the very source of the incorruptible life. This Trinitarian vision is a process of increasing “participation” in the life of God which Irenaeus traces through the Old Testament economies through the Incarnation and projects forward to the consummation of all things which continues this growing vision of God which bestows more and more of the incorruptible life upon humanity. For Irenaeus, this participation in God is the ontological basis of all being.
Next, Lossky examines early Alexandrian theology as represented by Clement, Origen, and Athanasius. Here, Lossky notes that these theologians were heavily influenced by Platonic and Gnostic thought. They were certainly able to resist full capitulation to the Hellenistic milieu, but rather than “Christianizing Hellenistic spirituality [as they hoped], Clement and Origen almost succeeded in spiritualizing Christianity” (p. 68). Their emphasis was heavily trained on the intellectual faculties of meditation and contemplation which ultimately resulted in what one writer described as a “super-intellectualistic mysticism” (p. 47). While Athanasius would do much better, recalling the Irenaean emphasis of participation, and recognizing this in the life of the church, he would nevertheless still describe this participation in terms of being raised “beyond all sensible things,” ceaseless contemplation, and other descriptions which strongly remind readers of his forbearers.
The Cappodocians, facing the challenge of Arianism and (its extreme proponents) the “Anomoeans,” insisted on defining the essence or ousia of God in terms of the Trinity. This meant distinguishing between the outward acts, energies, operations, or names of God from God’s essence. Thus contemplation of God and participation in deity became explicitly Trinitarian, contemplation of the persons and participation in the communion of the Trinity. But where Origen and Clement and (to some extent) Athanasius assumed a Platonic cosmology and ontology, the Cappodocian fathers spoke of that which transcends creation as God himself, the communion of the Trinity (instead of some sort of disembodied, spiritual-mental existence). Furthermore, the knowledge of God is transcended to become love of the persons of the Trinity, a personalism has developed which on the one hand still sounds somewhat esoteric and mystical and yet on the other hand clearly shows the potential for more.
In the Syro-Palestinians and Cyril of Jerusalem we find another interesting Christological emphasis and trend in theology. Where many of the previous theologians have stressed the elevation and transcendence necessary for humanity to have a vision of God, to participate in the divine life, these theologians placed greater stress on the incarnation and the revelation of God in the humanity of Christ. The incarnation became central to understanding how humanity might have intimate communion with the Trinity. Just as God became man, filling (and fulfilling) a human body with the life of the Trinity (and the Son in particular), so too every human has the capability of being filled with the divine life and brought into the intimacy of the Trinity. Therefore having the Holy Spirit indwell humans is to have the life of Christ indwelling. This being the case and Christ being the revelation of the glory and beauty and life of the Trinity, humans filled with this same Spirit are made partakers of the divine life.
Following these developments, Lossky surveys several ascetics, a couple of whom follow in the Origenistic “intellectual mysticism” paths while at least one, St. Diadochus of Photice, sought a better way. Diadochus uses a great deal of mystical sounding vocabulary, but what differentiates him from the others is his distinction between essence and energies and his stress on the revelation of God being found in the incarnation and the Son. But Lossky argues that it is finally in the St. Dionysus the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor of the sixth century where Origen (and Platonism) is left behind. In these two theologians the distinction between essence and energies is maintained but in addition, the physicality of humanity and creation is reclaimed from the spiritualism of Origen. Again looking to the incarnation as a model, the attributes or energies of God (his “names” as some refer to them) are, by grace, bestowed upon humans much like the hypostatic union of the natures in Christ. In this perochoretic union of divine and human natures, the intelligible and sensible faculties, both body and soul are no longer opposed but reunited and united in persons to commune with the Triune persons of the Godhead.
This study finally comes to a climax with chapters devoted to St. John Damascene (and Byzantine spirituality in general) and St. Gregory Palamas. In John Damascene we see again the distinction between the essence and outward attributes of God, and he points out the pneumatological dimensions of human participation in God. The transfiguration of Christ is pointed to as a revelation not of something new but rather of that which was always true but veiled to the eyes of most. Thus it is the Holy Spirit who fills humans and reveals to their eyes the Incarnate Son as the revelation of the Trinity. This united contemplation (of heart and mind, body and soul) has been the emphasis of Hesychasm, a particular method of prayer in the East which is often criticized by the West. While Lossky seeks to defend the Hesychasts from their critics, his main intent seems to be to show how many of these same theologians grounded this “vision of God” in the liturgical life of the Church. This grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit were seen to be available to all through baptism (p. 148) and central to the prayers of the people of God. Ultimately, according to Lossky, Palamas’ naysayers have re-embraced Origen’s Platonism (p. 156) where they (Palamas’ critics) have made grace an avenue, a habitus which leads them down a path. Fundamentally, Lossky says the disagreement over the “vision of God” is based upon the understanding of the “nature of grace” (p. 156). For Palamas and many of his Eastern predecessors, grace is not the possibility or potential for communion with God; grace is the presence of God in and with us (p. 166).