St Symeon the New Theologian. Second Theological Discourse.

Against Those Who Try To Theologize Without The Spirit.

The man who has received from above the grace of having the praise of God always on his lips opens his mouth to breathe the Spirit of life, and strives to open it yet wider to welcome the word of life more abundantly. This is that bread coming down from heaven of which it is said: ‘Open wide your mouth and I shall fill it.’ Thus, when God has judged a man worthy to enter this state, he can have the consciousness of God impressed once and for all like a seal on the superior part of his soul so that it is always present in his soul. And so, following the apostle’s advice, whether he is eating or drinking, he can rejoice always, pray ceaselessly, return thanks in every circumstance, and refer all things to the glory of God. Truly, he is constantly fed and strengthened by this bread of life. When he sleeps, his heart keeps vigil, and when he is awake, he is never in any way separated from God. This is what the apostle means when he says: ‘He who joins himself to a woman forms one body, and he who unites himself with the Lord becomes one spirit.’ ‘For God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.’ And it is also true that a man who is so united with God spiritually as to be one spirit with him is unable to sin, for the Theologian says: ‘It is for this that the Son of God has appeared, to take away our sins. And there is no sin in him. Whoever abides in him does not sin, and whoever sins has neither seen nor known him.’ Again: ‘Whoever is born of God does not commit sin, for the divine seed abides within him and he cannot sin because he is born of God.’

So, if the man who sins has neither seen nor known God, and if anyone born of God does not commit sin because he is called the child [of God], then it amazes me why the majority of men should be at all afraid of theologizing or speaking about God, when they have been born of God and gained the title of children. For this reason, when I hear about some who philosophize on divine and inaccessible matters and theologize in a state of uncleanness and expound on God and what relates to him without the understanding which the Spirit gives, I tremble in spirit. I am beside myself! How incomprehensible is the Godhead! It is beyond thought or vision, and indeed, so are we to ourselves. We do not know what lies under our very feet! How is it, then, that we have nothing better to do than philosophize about God without the slightest fear? How can we speak so boldly about things which are inaccessible to us? We sin by the very fact that we speak about God, for all the while we are empty of the Spirit who illumines these things and reveals them to us. 

It is hard for each man to know himself, and there are few who succeed in this philosophy. But small though it may be, this number will dwindle even more in our own time and in this generation when the love of philosophy is being blown out by the headwinds of prevailing apathy and [distracting] affairs of life. Men have exchanged eternal goods for those of no value, those which do not endure or which have no real existence at all because they are subject to change at the mercy of any circumstance and know no limit at which to stop. If this is so, how much more difficult it is to know God. Indeed, it is altogether contrary to reason and good sense to search out the nature and essence of God. So why do such men not repair their own house instead of searching out the things of God and all that concerns him? Our first concern should be to pass from death to life. This is the condition for our receiving from on high the seed of the living God and of being begotten by him so as to be called his children. Only then do we draw the Spirit into our inmost being, and by his illumination declare the things of God in the degree that this is possible, and according to the manner of our illumination by God. 

For the present, if you wish to theologize about God in these terms, then I ask you to believe that God is one and alone, and that he has not been produced by any other, for nothing existed before him and nothing is older than he. This is not to say that he made himself, as some particularly foolish people have thought. It is impossible for non-being to pass of itself into being. No, he is from all eternity. He pre-exists and he will be forevermore one God in three persons. If you want to uphold the truth correctly, you should not say that something which exists as both one and three does not exist at all. Whoever learns about the things which transcend him from things which affect him will adore the One Godhead in three co-essential persons. And if he has not obscured or clouded the image through his passions, he will first of all recognize himself and know for a fact that the Creator has given him an immanent living soul constituted in three parts, for it includes mind and reason as well. And in this way, with a sure and clear conception, he will understand the things of God by analogy with the things that pertain to himself.

It is the Spirit who moves from on high that moves him on to an understanding of God the Father, he who has given existence to the universe by drawing it from non-being by his own word, and who by the power of his Spirit keeps it together in being. It is he who, beyond all time, eternally generates the Son who is of the same essence as he and who is never separated from him; and with the Son and co-essential with him, the divine Spirit proceeds from the co-essential Father. So it is that when a man has a correct conception of God, he shows that he is himself the image of the Creator whenever he makes a profession of faith, for he is endowed with a soul that is reasonable, intelligent, and immortal, created by an intelligence and a reason which are co-essential and indwelling. If it were otherwise, man would accuse himself of being totally devoid of intelligence and reason. If he does away with these divine properties, then how, or in what other way, or with what other qualities, is he to be the image of the Creator? On the other hand, a man may admit he is composed of such parts and correctly apply them to himself, but then go against reason and deny their application to God, the Creator upon whom he depends. Such a man would then seem to me no different from a pagan — I dare not say from the animals or reptiles and wild beasts.

For my part, this is what I believe: the soul did not take precedence over or pre-exist intelligence, neither did intelligence [pre-exist] the reason it engenders. They received existence simultaneously from God. Intelligence gives birth to reason and thereby produces the will of the soul. In the same way, then, God the Father did not pre-exist the Son or the Spirit. Just as intelligence is in the soul, having reason immanently within itself, so too God the Father is in the entire Spirit, having entire in himself God the Word engendered. Just as intelligence and reason cannot exist without the soul, so there is no way of naming the Son and the Father apart from the Holy Spirit. How could the living God exist without life? It is the Holy Spirit which is the Life and the Life-Giver. So, then, profess with me that the Father engenders without pre-existing, that the Son is not engendered some time afterwards or as coming into being, and that the Holy Spirit proceeds but yet remains, with the Son, co-eternal and co-essential with the Father himself. Worship the whole Spirit in the whole Father, one and unoriginate, the whole Father in the whole Son, one and co-eternal, and the whole Son entire in the One Father and Spirit.

[Worship] the one essence and nature in three persons, co-eternal, co-essential, without division or confusion, conceived as one sole principle of all things, the one God who created the universe. By means of things which touch upon you, you have been initiated into things which transcend you, so keep in mind that image with which [God] has honored you. Reason exists entire in that entire intelligence which you possess, and yet the soul is in both without any division or separation. This is what constitutes the image, that treasure we have received from on high; it is to be made in the likeness of God the Father and to bear the image of him who has begotten and created us. Thus, when we meet someone, even though he has intelligence, soul, and reason, we nonetheless pay him a single honor. We do not make distinctions or give preference to any of the three parts, but treat the man who has all three as undivided and unconfused. Because of this image of the Creator which we all share, we address and revere but one single man, not three distinct beings.

I beg you, then, [to reason] from the qualities you yourself bear and to think in this way about those of God who gave them to you, and worship the Holy Trinity religiously as one single God, co-essential and without beginning in his oneness. Think of the privileges with which God has blessed you, creating you in his own image and honoring you with this participation in his own properties. We profess that the Father is equal in glory to the Son and the Spirit and has the same essence and the same power. The Holy Trinity is one principle, authority, and dominion, just as you know that in us the intelligence is of equal glory to the reason and the soul, and is of the same glory and the same essence. Indeed they are all of one essence and nature. Because of our glory, and because of the fact that we have our being from God in being begotten and created by him, we are able to recognize and venerate God as our Father and Maker. If a man lacks one of these three, he cannot be a man. If we take away intelligence, then reason would be taken away with it, and he would be both senseless and irrational; if the soul [were taken away], intelligence and reason would be removed with it. Even if it were only a question of the immanent reason [being removed], then the whole living being would still be made useless, for an intelligence that cannot produce speech is unable to receive speech from someone else. How could it, being so mutilated and disordered in its true nature?

It is just like breathing in air. The latter comes to us naturally, but if we are deprived of it, we collapse immediately; and in just the same way, intelligence has within itself by nature the rational faculty, and can certainly express it in speech. If, then, it is deprived of its natural ability to communicate and becomes separated and cut off from the immanent reason, then it perishes and is no longer of the slightest use. To make my discussion of this bodily analogy more clear, I will consider childbirth as a simile for reason. If a woman has conceived a child, and does not deliver him into the world at the time appointed by nature, both she and her child will be in danger of death. In the same way, God has given our intelligence the natural property of constantly engendering speech, which is inseparable from it and inherent in its very essence. If you suppress this, you also suppress that which engendered it.

Now, if you are ready, turn your thoughts to the prototype and know without doubt that whoever denies the Son of God also denies the one who engendered him. And if he denies the Father and the Son, how can he fail, even in spite of himself, to deny the Spirit, too? If any man says that one of the persons is inferior or superior to the others, it only shows that he has not yet allowed the head of reason to rise up from the pit of the passions. Otherwise, he would be able to use the eyes of his mind to know himself truly and learn what this implies. The intelligence is not greater than the soul, nor the soul than the intelligence. Neither is the reason superior or inferior to either of them. In the same way there is no superiority or inferiority involved between the Father and the Son, or the Son in relation to the Father, or the Spirit in relation to both. They are at once without origin, and of the same glory and equal in dignity. Such conceptions as these are in no way applicable to the holy and equally glorious Trinity. So then, I ask you to think of transcendent matters from the analogy of your own experience, in accordance with the things which mark you out as the image of God.

It is a good thing to keep returning over and over again to this same point so that your senses may be illumined and you may gain a perfect understanding of the mysteries of the kingdom hidden within you. You are established in a dignity beyond all other creatures by being honored with reason, and by virtue of this, you rule over them all as king. Well then, as human intelligence [knows] itself by means of reason, and as the soul knows itself through both, in the same way we faithful have known, and still do know, God the Father through his only Son, his Word, and we know the Holy Spirit by the Father and the co-eternal Son. When the intelligence gives birth to the word, then the will of the soul has made itself known, either by the living voice or in writing, to those that hear it, and it is something that is common to both [parts]. It is obvious that they are not confused or split up into three, but instead one sees or conceives the three together in each one, in one single essence and one single will. 

Analogously, in the case of the holy, co-essential, and indivisible Trinity, you must think and profess it with piety in this manner: the Father ineffably engenders God the Word whom he had within him in the beginning, and he keeps him engendered without being separated, and high above all [spoken] word. The Son is generated eternally and inseparably from the Father who generates him without ever being separated from him. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father with the self-same nature as the co-essential Father and Son. He is united with them and is worshipped and glorified with them by all living things. But in all of them, you must recognize only one and the same will. All those who have been illumined from on high, even I in my lowliness, know that this is so. It has been revealed to us in the Holy Spirit by the grace of the Father through the Son.

Let us come again to the same point by a different road. This time we shall consecrate the example of our memory and speech. In the [divine persons], the super-essential essence of the one Godhead and dominion is in three hypostases. Since you believe this, you should confess with me clearly and without reservation that the three hypostases are united by nature, and are neither merged in a confusion nor split up into three. In fact, in each of them our intelligence can recognize the other two because there is but one essence, one nature, one single honor and will. Believe, then, that they are one God, who is the author and maker of all things visible and invisible. 

If any man believes that God is the maker of all beings and has drawn them all from non-being, whether they be in heaven, on earth, or under the earth, then such a man, himself created by God, remains within his proper limits in knowing his Maker. He is drawn towards his Creator by the beauty of his creatures, and praises and glorifies him as the Creator of all. Such a man will refrain from prying into his incomprehensible nature, for he knows, as I have said, that like all other things, he is simply a creature, whereas [God] is the maker of the universe, uncreated, without origin, incomprehensible, inexpressible, unfathomable, existing and pre-existing eternally. There never was a time when God was not, for he made all the ages and existed before any beginning. No one, therefore, can speculate about his beginning or discover his end. He was without origin. He is the principle of the universe and will exist eternally for infinite ages unlimited. He is the Inaccessible, the Invisible, the Inexpressible, the Ineffable, the One who cannot be comprehended by any of those he has made.

In times past we were earthly and base. We were deceived about many gods and worshipped the creation and venerated idols. Then it was that he remained unknown to us. But he took pity on our ignorance and stooped down to our weakness, so that we might know that God is a perfect Trinity in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that he should be adored with piety. But as to his essence or his form, or where he is, or how great, or how he shares his essence, or the manner in which it is united—these are things which are never given to man to understand. Indeed, not even the Powers above have access to the inaccessibility of his super-essential essence. So do not try to quote me theological explanations drawn from the holy Scriptures, for these were given by the theologians against the blasphemous arguments of the heretics. You must understand that because the divine nature is inaccessible, it is also inconceivable, and what is inconceivable is altogether inexpressible. Is it not true that when we think about something and try to put it into words we are often totally unable to express it? Who, then, among men or angels would be able to explain the Invisible and the Inconceivable? For this is what all the Scriptures witness about him, and it was he who inspired them. 

No one at all could ever explain in words something which transcends being. It is impossible for the human spirit to conceive it. All the divine Scriptures, through all the different ideas and expressions it applies to God, reveals to us that he is, not who he is. Its witness teaches us only that he is eternally, and that he is who he is: God the everlasting, three-personed, omnipotent, ruling all and seeing all, the maker and creator of all, beyond all need, wholly transcendent. We can know such a God only in the manner of a man who stands at night on the sands and holds out a lighted lantern to peer at the boundless immensity of the ocean’s waves. How much of the whole limitless ocean do you think he could possibly see? Very little, if anything at all! But even if he cannot say how far it extends, he still sees the nature of the water quite distinctly, and here he makes no mistake. He knows well enough that what he is looking at is the sea, a fathomless ocean beyond his ability to view completely. So even though he does not see it, he still seems to perceive it in some way, for from that small part he does see, he forms an idea of the infinity of the waters.

If you like, we can take an indirect example to help us understand. Imagine we found a blind man who had never seen a spring of water and did not know what water was, because it was outside his experience and he had never tasted it. [Suppose] you described the natural properties of water to him: you tell him that it is beautiful, that it takes the form of lakes, wells, and even seas fed by rivers. Then he asks you about its nature, its appearance, its quality, and even its quantity; how it moves, where it comes from in the first place, how it spreads everywhere without running out—how would you answer these questions of his? For myself, I think that even if you had the most penetrating and speculative intellect you would not have the words to explain its origin, its essence, or its movement. You would certainly be unable to teach him about its quality or quantity. How could you [explain it] to a man who had never seen or used the substance? But if words and explanations fail us with regard to something fluid, something that can be seen and touched, and we cannot answer those who ask us about its nature, origin, or composition, how could even one of the angels, or all of the saints together, possibly teach anything about the things of God and what concerns him to those who are ignorant of them? [How could they] teach about his essence and glory, or the nature of him who gave being to this universe? No one could ever do this.

But as for the man who has been judged worthy to see God in the inaccessible glory of his divine and boundless light, even in the limited manner we have spoken of, such a man will have no need of any other teaching. He has the entire [divinity] abiding within himself, and it moves him, speaks to him, and initiates him mystically into its hidden mysteries. This is in accordance with the divine word he gave: ‘My mystery is for me and for mine.’ The only way to arrive at this contemplation is through the faithful observance of his precepts, provided that their observance is not spoiled by any kind of alteration through negligence or contempt, but kept and practised with fervent care. As a consequence, ‘All those who shall keep to this rule will not find themselves far from the kingdom of heaven.’ In proportion to their fervor and their zealous joy in this observance, then sooner or later, in a greater or lesser degree, they will earn the reward of the vision of God and become participants in the divine nature. They will be called gods through adoption, and sons of God in Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be glory and dominion with the Father and the all-holy Spirit, now and forever, and through the ages of ages. Amen.