St Symeon the New Theologian, First Theological Discourse.

Against Those Who Ascribe The Concept Of Anteriority To The Father.

It would be the sign of a rash and presumptuous soul to speak or discourse about God, to investigate all that concerns him, or to try to express what cannot be expressed, or understand what for all men is beyond understanding. This is not only the affliction of those who take it upon themselves to talk about God, but even those who try to repeat the sayings of the theologians who have been inspired by God, [sayings] with which they fought the heretics in times past and which have been handed on to us in writing. Such persons interpret these in every conceivable sense, not in order to gain spiritual profit, but to be admired by their audience at banquets and gatherings, and in order to make a name for themselves as theologians. It saddens and disturbs me, especially when I think of the terrible trial and judgement which awaits such foolhardy men. What presumptuous statements they have made about God!

According to my opponent, the only reason that the Father is greater than the Son is that he is the cause of the Son’s existence. To this I reply: ‘In what way are you saying that the Father is greater than the Son?’. And he answers: ‘The Father is clearly greater than the Son, or in other words “anterior,” because the Son is from the Father.’ Such are the vain novelties which their senseless theology proclaims. They do not know the reasons why the theologians spoke in this way against the heretics. Unable to grasp the true sense of the writings, they stumble blindly on and present their own interpretations as if they were assured truth, real and certain. To men like this we do not speak as from ourselves, we rely on the Spirit who makes himself heard from above, and we speak as the initiates of him who teaches men knowledge. Now let us speak.

If the all-holy Trinity who has drawn the universe from non-being always was, is now, and always will be indivisible, then tell me who among you has taught or conceived these measures and degrees within it? This ‘first’ and ‘second,’ this ‘greater’ and ‘lesser’? Who has set this out so clearly with regard to the invisible and unknown [hypostases], who are absolutely beyond thought and speech? Since they are eternally united and eternally unchanging they cannot have any priority among themselves. If you want to say that the Father is prior to the Son because the Son is born from him, and for this reason is also greater, then I for my part say to you that the Son is prior to the Father, for if the Son had not been born then the Father would not have been called ‘Father.’ If, [on the other hand], you place the Father altogether before the Son, and categorize him as prior in that he is the cause of the Son’s generation, then I also reject [the idea] that he is the ’cause’ of the Son.

For in this way you allow it to be implied that before the Son was begotten he did not exist, and that he was begotten according to whether he willed it or not, or whether the Father willed it or not, and that he could have known or have been ignorant about his generation and the manner in which it was to take place. You see what paradoxes, not to say blasphemies, into which these inquiries make us fall? So you must either renounce the expression ‘the Father is prior to the Son,’ in which case we will admit what you say about the Father as the cause, or if you insist on the first expression even after we have placed it under judgement, then we must equally reject your second. As we have said, they are eternally united and eternally unchanging, so they cannot be the cause of one another.

If you do not imagine that the Father existed before the Son, you will not be led to say that he is prior to, or greater than, the Son. A being which pre-exists can be said to be prior to that which it has engendered, produced, or created, but how can he be spoken of as prior to the co-eternal? The Son is himself eternal and without beginning, just as the Father is. The Father, then, does not pre-exist, and never has been and never will be prior to the Son. On the contrary, he is complete in the complete and equally glorious Son, just as the Son is in the complete and consubstantial Father. If you say that the Father is the cause of the Son, then I must point out that you imply there was a time when God was alone, when the Son was not, and that he engendered him later and thus became the cause of his existence. This is impiety and leads you far from God and the truth. It puts you in the ranks of the ungodly who say that the Son is a creature of the Father. Even to think this is the height of impiety and atheism.

We say that the Father is the cause of the birth of the Son in regard to his bodily generation, but as to that divine subsistence which is without subsistence, the birth which is unborn, the substance which is not substance, and the essence beyond all essence (or whatever else there is beyond my intellect), then if anyone talks about a first he must also refer to a second and a third. This manner of speaking cannot apply in any way to the all-holy Trinity. What a foolish and dangerous undertaking it would be to measure out the immeasurable or to speak of the ineffable or to discourse about that which is beyond words. So with regard to the divine and ineffable generation of God the Word, we say that the Father is the cause of the Son just as the mind is of the spoken word or the spring of the stream, or root of branches, but we do not say that he is prior, in case we multiply the number or divide the one indivisible deity into three gods.

In this Trinity which is without any division or confusion, one cannot conceive or speak about a first, a second, or a third, or about a great or a small. It is absolutely impossible to speak or express or even conceive the properties of a divine nature which is above and beyond all essence. The human mind simply cannot comprehend it. But if you still want to exercise your reason in a different way and learn how incomprehensible is that God who gave being to all things from non-being, then let us suppose you were to place the Spirit in front of the Son and the Father (what a way for a theologian to speak!). In this case, you will find in him the complete identity of the co-eternal persons because they are consubstantial. You see how the properties of the divine nature are incomprehensible for us men? It is said that ‘God is Spirit’ and again that ‘The Lord is the Spirit.’ So if God is Spirit and the Lord is the Spirit, where here is that Fatherhood or Sonship which makes you modern theologians teach and propose and enumerate a first and a greater in that divine and incomprehensible nature?

John the Theologian said, ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ not ‘in the beginning was the Father.’ Have you received from Jesus, who is Wisdom itself, an initiation even more profound than John’s, that you can propose for us and the whole world the concept of the Father as first, that you can show the Son to be second after him, and the Holy Spirit in his turn a third? You are preaching a different Gospel to us. You pass yourselves off as theologians more profound than the ancients and more intimate with the Son of God. What blasphemy! Since you perversely teach us the doctrine of tritheism, tell us then why the Theologian who rested on the breast of Christ did not say: ‘In the beginning was the Father,’ but ‘In the beginning was the Word’; and why did he say ‘Word’ and not ‘Son,’ except to teach us that no one knew there was a Son, or that God was a Father, until God the Word descended and became incarnate? 

This is not to say that the three-personed Godhead, source of all that is, did not yet exist, but only that the mystery of the incarnation was as yet unknown. For it is only after the incarnation of God the Word that God the Father was also known by us believers as a Father, and that God the Word, who became incarnate for our sake, was known as the Son of God, in accordance with that word which the Father spoke from heaven: ‘This is my beloved Son, listen to him.’ And the Son said: ‘Righteous Father, the world has not known you but I have known you’; and again: ‘I have made your name known to men’; and again: ‘Father, glorify your Son that your Son may glorify you’; and finally: ‘I and the Father are one.’ If, then, the Son and the Father are one after the incarnation of God the Word, how much more so before the incarnation!

Consider carefully with me the force of these words. He says: ‘I and the Father are one.’ Why does he name himself before the Father? It is in order to show us that he himself is absolutely equal to the Father in dignity and glory, and that the Father is not first even though he is the cause of the Son, nor is the Son second even though he comes from the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit third even though he proceeds from the Father. If the Trinity is one from the very beginning and is called a Trinity in regard to the persons, then it follows that one cannot in any way be prior either to himself or to the other persons with him. The one did not pre-exist the other so that by virtue of this pre-existence he is prior to the brightness born from him. There is but one Godhead, one Trinity, and, as I have said, it is called such with regard to the persons and hypostases. But because it is divided without division and united without confusion God is called a single Trinity. No one [of the persons] has ever pre-existed the others so that one becomes prior to another, not the Father in relation to the Son, nor the Son to the Father, nor both of them in relation to the Spirit. They have a simultaneous beginning which is coeternal and without origin.

The Trinity is therefore one God, inexpressible, without beginning, uncreated, incomprehensible, undivided, and beyond all human thought or speech. But in case too long a silence should lead us into the disaster of forgetting him entirely, and we live in the world as atheists, it has been granted to us to speak of God and the things of God so far as human nature allows, following the teachings of the divine apostles and our fathers inspired by God. Thus, by constantly renewing the memory of God, we glorify his goodness and the kindness he has shown us in the incarnation. We, who are dirt and ashes, however, forget our true nature and stretch out to the limitless. We have no qualms about searching out the things that even angels and all the heavenly powers cannot understand or express. We analyze them as a pastime, categorize them, make up theories, and try to depict them all. In this we are no different from unbelievers or men who have never been initiated into the mysteries of Christ. This is how we think about the things of God, without the slightest feeling of awe, and we discourse on them in our presumption.

Since you have no fear in examining the divine nature, then tell me, do you believe that God is three persons without beginning, uncreated, incomprehensible, unsearchable, and invisible, that the mind cannot contain him, or words give expression to him, that he has been the self-same from all eternity, without any beginning of days or years or ages, and that he is eternally? ‘Of course,’ you reply. But if you believe that the Holy Trinity was one God alone, as indeed it was, and that when it so determined it drew the heavens and the earth and all they contain from non-being into being, created all the heavenly powers and then created man the last of all these, and [if you believe] that there is nothing in heaven or on earth or under the earth which has not been drawn or produced from non-being, and that only God who made and created them all is uncreated, without beginning, existing eternally and before all things; well then, if you believe all this why do you not fall down in awe and silence before the world-maker as do all the powers of heaven? Why is it that you neglect to examine yourself, and try instead to discover his incomprehensible nature in your brash insolence? Have you no fear of lightning falling from heaven to consume you in its fire?

The one God in three persons is uncreated, without origin, existing eternally and before all things, and this consubstantial and indivisible Trinity of one Godhead has produced all things visible and invisible, material and spiritual, known and unknown. As this is the case, tell me, then, if we were to compare all these things which have been made with the one who made them, how could such beings perceive his nature in any real way? It would be like comparing contingent things to the eternal existent, creatures to the uncreated, or temporal realities which have a dependent existence to the one who had no beginning. How could they perceive his immensity or the manner of his appearing? In no way at all! Except, that is, to the degree in which the maker of all creatures, because of his love for man, himself gives to each the gift of knowing him as much as is expedient, just as he first gave him breath and life and soul, intelligence and reason. If this were not so, how could we ever say that any being created by God would ever know its own creator?

Apart from this there is no means of arriving at [such knowledge], and no one at all has the power to do so. But the knowledge he granted us believers is proportionate to our faith, so that knowledge confirms faith independently of knowledge, and that by this knowledge the man who has heard the word and believed may, through this knowledge, find confirmation that the teaching of the word has led him to believe in one who is truly God. The faithful receive this teaching by many different signs: by enigmas, by mirrors, in inexpressible mystic powers and divine revelations, by veiled illuminations, by contemplation of the reasons of creation, and many other means. In this way, their faith grows day by day and rises up to the love of God. This is not all, for God fills them, just as he did the apostles, through the mission and presence of the Holy Spirit. They are enlightened more perfectly, and by this light they learn what it means to say that God is ineffable and inexpressible, uncreated and eternal, endless and incomprehensible. Indeed, all knowledge and discernment, every wise word and mystical understanding, come to us only through the teaching of the Spirit; so too the power of miracles, the gift of prophecy, tongues, and interpretation, the protection and government of cities and peoples, the knowledge of good things to come and the attainment of the kingdom of heaven, the adoption as sons, the very putting on of Christ and the knowledge of the mysteries of Christ, and the understanding of the mystery of the economy in our regard. In short, we who have been graced as believers are able to know and think and speak about all these things which remain mysteries to the unbelievers.

By these and similar means we are fully assured and convinced that it is God himself who has lifted the darkness of ignorance away from us; the same who made all things, who also created us by lifting us from the clay of the earth, who graced us with mind and reason and rational soul, who has made us in his own image and likeness. It is he who has allowed us to see dimly realities which are beyond us, as though in a shadow, by analogy with the things that are at hand. From these things we have learned, and by them we see, and from them we believe, that just as he made our mind, our soul, and our immanent rationality at the same time he formed our bodies—for when we say that ‘God formed man, taking clay from the earth, and breathed on his face the breath of life, and it became for him a living soul’ we show that our mind and reason existed at the same time as the soul; none of these pre-existed or was pre-supposed by the others, and the three together are one, and were given to us as one single breath of life—well, just as in this case none of the parts pre-existed or was pre-supposed by the others because there was a unity of essence and nature, so too none of the persons of the Holy Trinity pre-existed the others since there is one and the same essence and glory. The three-personed God, the maker of the image, never had one of the persons pre-existing the others. The three together are one very God, and in the same way the one is eternally three.

We therefore confess and believe this, and we witness to all others, that it is not rash to speak and inquire about the things of God, namely that God is three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Holy Trinity in whose name we were baptized. We are assured of this by the powers and gifts of the Spirit which come down on us as well as by the sacred dogmas and the Gospels themselves. But as to how he is a Trinity, or since when, or what nature or origin he has who created all things, then we creatures simply do not know. And if we do not know, as in fact we do not, how many thunderbolts would we deserve if we were to talk about something we do not comprehend? We are visible creatures, corruptible and sensual, blind and devoid of light, how then can we know something which is outside all created reality, whether visible or invisible? In addition to this, our sins set up a dividing wall between God and ourselves and separate us from him. If we do not destroy it or scale it through repentance, we will not only be unable to know God, we will not even know that we are men.

While this partition stands, it cuts us off from the light, and how can we possibly know ourselves in the darkness of such a life? How could we truly know what we are, or where we came from, or what our destiny is, our origin and our end, or who we are? And if we do not know ourselves, how much greater will be our ignorance of him who is incomparably superior to us? If we were not ignorant of ourselves we would not speak so rashly about God. For to speak about God and divine things without illumination, while deprived of the Holy Spirit, simply shows our ignorance about ourselves—and rightly so, for if we knew ourselves accurately, we would never reckon ourselves worthy to look at the heavens to see the light of this world, nor even to walk the earth; instead, we would run to bury ourselves under the dirt. Tell me, what more unclean thing can there be than a man who in his presumptive pride tries to teach the things of the Spirit without the Spirit? What is more abominable than an unrepentant man who does not purify himself beforehand, but neglecting this task tries to theologize on the basis of a pseudo-knowledge and a worldly wisdom? He speaks in utter insolence about those who have existed from all ages in their self-identity. Even if there were no other sins involved—which is impossible—this one thing already places the man under an eternal judgment, for ‘every proud man is unclean before the Lord.’

Some of these men have come to ruin in such foolishness because they would neither recognize nor confess that they had sinned at all. What madness! No one is sinless save God alone. The divine apostle says: ‘All men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified by the gift of his grace.’ So, if according to this sacred Scripture, no one is sinless save God alone and all men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, then anyone who says ‘I have not sinned’ unwittingly makes himself the equal of God, and is like the man who said ‘I will place my throne upon the clouds and I shall be like the Most High.’ But if you confess that you have sinned, then show me the signs that your confession is genuine: sincere trust in your spiritual father who has received your thoughts, submission, obedience in servile works, care for your needy brothers, service for the sick—and even more, profound humility of soul and behaviour without dissimulation, fraud, or pretence. Show me that you have all these things in the inmost thoughts of your soul, especially the dispositions that give rise to that constant sorrow and the tears that bring joy, for it is in these and by these that the zealous man gains the purification of his soul and the knowledge of the mysteries of God. Only after this should you begin to speak about divine or human affairs. Only then will I recognize the value of your words.

The fruit and role of repentance is at one and the same time to dispel ignorance and obtain knowledge. I mean primarily knowledge about ourselves and human affairs, and after this of things above us and of the divine mysteries which are both invisible and incomprehensible to the unrepentant. I am talking, of course, about [the mysteries] of our faith. No man can win this treasure without the works I have just mentioned, even if he were to go the whole round of philosophy. If a man has not become rich in the communion of this [faith], he will spend his entire life in the deepest blackness of ignorance. The divine matters and those which concern the divinity are laid down in the Scriptures so that all men can approach them for their own benefit, but they are only revealed to those who have fervently repented and been purified by this sincere repentance; indeed, [the revelation] is in due proportion to their repentance and purification. Only to men like this are the depths of the Spirit revealed, and they in their turn present us with the word of the wisdom and knowledge of God from its very source.

It is like an overflowing river which inundates the spirits of all that face it. But for all other men these things remain unknown and hidden. He who opens the minds of the faithful to the understanding of the Scriptures never reveals them to such as these, and rightly so, for it is said: ‘My mystery is for me and for mine.’ Thus, these men think that they see, but they hear nothing; [they think] that they understand, but they are without comprehension. They are unable to discern the things they read. Each of the unbelievers thinks that he is reflecting when he is not reflecting; he thinks he know something but he knows nothing at all; or if he does know anything, he knows it in a bad way which is worse than any ignorance. And I think that these men are just the same. They think that they are wise, but in fact have become unfortunate fools who spend their days, as must be the case, like witless idiots knowing nothing of the mysteries of Christ. May the God of Israel deliver us from their presumption and pride and grant that we may be considered worthy followers of his own humility.

Any man who leaves the path, then, and I mean [the path] of blessed humility of spirit, placing his foot out of the way and going on either to right or to left, and who does not follow the footsteps of Jesus our God, how can such a man enter with him into the bridal chamber? And if he has not entered with him, how will he contemplate his glory? And if he has not contemplated it, how will he tell others what it is and what it is like? How would he have the boldness to talk about things he has never seen or understood? If he did try to teach such awesome subjects would there be on earth any more foolish man than he? Would he not be further removed from reason than the beasts of the field, and even more bestial than they, for at least the animals keep to the limits of their own natures and stay within their own bounds. But such a man, even though formed by the hand of God and honored with reason and free will, has abused his position and failed to recognize his own weakness. He has not remained in the good things God put in his nature, and has neither stayed within his own bounds nor even recognized his limitations.

No, like Lucifer and later Adam, the angel and the man who rebelled against their Maker and pretended to be gods, this man has sadly passed over the boundary of his own nature and allowed himself to be carried away by fantasies and desires for things beyond him. He has wished to scale the heights of spiritual knowledge, not by Christ’s example of lowliness, but in arrogance and pride. This man has gathered at random the bricks of pseudo-knowledge, baked them through assiduous meditation, and then assembled them into a presumptuous edifice with one eye on the love of glory and the other on pleasing his audience. He flatters himself that he now possesses a tower of theology and of spiritual knowledge. More than this, he even thinks that he is already in the heavens or even above the heavens, and imagining that he stands at their very summit, he discourses on the Creator of heaven and earth and all that they contain. Could we call such a creature a man? Who would rate him even as high as the beasts? Who would credit him with any sense at all?

Man was made in the image of God and deemed worthy of angelic and immortal life, but if he was rightly deprived of that angelic state as well as of eternal life and condemned to death, corruption, and the curse, all because he transgressed that one commandment of God, then what will happen to those of [Adam’s] race who meddle in theology while they still bear the image of dust and have never been purified? You are trying to meddle in the teachings about God and divine things, but you have never been taught yourself. Tell me, have you first come up from hell to appear on earth? How did you manage this? Through what steps and stages did you make the ascent? Who helped you, and what manner of creature were they? You came to the surface stinking and rotten with corruption, no more than a corpse in the thrall of death. How did you lay hold on life again, overcome death, and succeed in escaping from his hands? Tell us about these things and then, no doubt, you will tell us how you managed to be delivered from your corruption and freed from the curse after you came up from hell and arrived on earth. After all this, you can show us how you were lifted up from the earth. What kind of ladder did you use? What kind of wings did you have to fly up to the highest heavens? And in what kind of flesh did you rise up bodily so that you could rise again outside that body even higher? What cloud lifted you up? Show us all these things and teach us on these matters, and then we will recognize that you speak of God legitimately, with fear and trembling.

But if a man rashly tried to preach without having manifested those spiritual signs which are always realized mystically in those who have reached the state of the completed man in the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, or without having fulfilled the commandments of God, then I would run from him as if he were a madman, a demoniac out of his mind. Even Elijah was not lifted up to heaven bodily without the chariot of fire. Even our God and master had the cloud of the Spirit to bear him up. Nonetheless [God] could easily have carried Elijah from earth to heaven without the appearance of the chariot, as he did in the case of Enoch, and the master himself could certainly have risen to the heavens on his own without the cloud or the escort of angels. But the fact is, he did not; and why? It was to teach us that our minds are completely dependent on someone to lift them up to heaven, and there to show them visions and reveal the mysteries of God. A bird cannot fly in the air without its wings; no more can the mind of man climb back to the place from which it fell without someone to guide it and lift it up high.

And there is another reason, too, for the Master wanted to validate his own ascension and rising to heaven, as well as that of his servants, with the self-same works, and so teach us not to be deceived by mere words, nor to believe every man who claims to be spiritual, but to rely more on life and conduct, especially if a man’s words and actions harmonize with the teachings of the Lord, the apostles, and the holy fathers. We should then receive and listen to his words as if they were the words of Christ himself. Otherwise even if a man were to raise the dead or show a thousand other miracles, run away from him and hate him as if he were a devil. You should do this all the more when it is obvious that in spite of warnings, he refuses to change his way of thinking and persists in his own perverted understanding, imagining that his way of life and behaviour is heavenly.

We have been initiated from on high by the inspired teachings of the apostles of Christ and our holy fathers, and we therefore reject the vain and empty voices of men who like nothing better than ransacking and ferreting round things which are inaccessible even to the angels. Unshaking and steadfast, we hold fast to the confession of our faith which we have received from on high through them, a faith in the one Godhead, in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the unconfused and undivided Trinity into which we were baptized, by which we live, think, and understand, through which we continue to be and shall be evermore, which in wisdom drew the universe from non-being, from which we received our own existence and our well-being, and in the company of which we shall be able to pass from here below to the tranquil harbour of incorruptible life. For there is the dwelling place of all those who are in joy, the place of all who celebrate in the Spirit, to whom be all glory, honour, and adoration, now and forever, and through the ages of ages. Amen.