21 May 2008

De trinitate I.1.3

"So then it is difficult to contemplate and have full knowledge of God's substance, which without any change in itself makes things that change, and without any passage of time in itself creates things that exist in time. That is why it is necessary for our minds to be purified before that inexpressible reality can be inexpressibly seen by them; and in order to make us fit and capable of grasping it, we are led along more endurable routes, nurtured on faith as long as we have not yet been endowed with that necessary purification."

St. Augustine says two things here:
1. that the one who seeks to theologize must be pure;
2. that it is difficult to contemplate and have full knowledge of God's substance.

Compare and contrast how St. Gregory the Theologian discusses these two points in his Theological Orations.

ad 1) above:

"In the former Discourse we laid down clearly with respect to the Theologian, both what sort of character he ought to bear, and on what kind of subject he may philosophize, and when, and to what extent. We saw that he ought to be, as far as may be, pure, in order that light may be apprehended by light; and that he ought to consort with serious men, in order that his word be not fruitless through falling on an unfruitful soil; and that the suitable season is when we have a calm within from the whirl of outward things; so as not like madmen to lose our breath; and that the extent to which we may go is that to which we have ourselves advanced, or to which we are advancing." Oration 28.1

ad 2) above:

"It is difficult to conceive God but to define Him in words is an impossibility, as one of the Greek teachers of Divinity (Plato, Tim., 28 E.:"Now that which is created must, as we affirm, of necessity be created by a cause. But the father and maker of all this universe is past finding out; and even if we found him, to tell of him to all men would be impossible.") taught, not unskilfully, as it appears to me; with the intention that he might be thought to have apprehended Him; in that he says it is a hard thing to do; and yet may escape being convicted of ignorance because of the impossibility of giving expression to the apprehension. But in my opinion it is impossible to express Him, and yet more impossible to conceive Him. For that which may be conceived may perhaps be made clear by language, if not fairly well, at any rate imperfectly, to any one who is not quite deprived of his hearing, or slothful of understanding. But to comprehend the whole of so great a Subject as this is quite impossible and impracticable, not merely to the utterly careless and ignorant, but even to those who are highly exalted, and who love God, and in like manner to every created nature; seeing that the darkness of this world and the thick covering of the flesh is an obstacle to the full understanding of the truth. I do not know whether it is the same with the higher natures and purer Intelligences which because of their nearness to God, and because they are illumined with all His Light, may possibly see, if not the whole, at any rate more perfectly and distinctly than we do; some perhaps more, some less than others, in proportion to their rank." Oration 28.4
Both Augustine and Gregory agree on the need for purity in those who would theologize--a word we need to hear in our day. But I am struck by this distinction between the two: Augustine says that it is difficult to have full knowledge of God's substance; Gregory says that it is impossible.

St. Gregory Palamas said somewhere (?reference?) that Barlaam made two errors with respect to the knowledge of God: first, that we cannot really know God in this life; and second, that those in heaven will know God with respect to his essence.

Now in the west, no distinction exists between God's essence and his attributes/energies. As Aquinas says, “God is all the things that He has...” (On Spiritual creatures article 11). The translator of De trinitate notes, ".... the attributes of God are not accidental qualities that adhere to him, nor are his actions things that he happens to do in time. As the Arians rightly insisted, in God all accidents become substance. God is his attributes, and his attributes are him, and the same goes for his actions." (pg. 45)

If we make no distinction between God's essence and his energies--and let it be noted that this is a position that the West is committed to--then, if we say it is impossible to know God's essence we must be hard-core agnostics (not to say atheists) of a sort. Hence Augustine is committed to say that to know God's substance is difficult.

But if we make the distinction between God's essence and his energies, which the East is committed to, then we can affirm both that we can know God even in this life, by knowing his energies; and that we can never know God in his essence, either in this life or in the age to come.


npmccallum said...

Further analysis of these passages is available here: http://nathaniel.themccallums.org/2008/05/21/augustine-gregory-and-barlaam-on-knowing-god/

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...


Thanks for posting a link to your blog's analysis. If my little experiment is to work, I'd like to set a couple of ground rules. (Perhaps it won't work; I don't know.)

I'd prefer it, though I can't insist,

* that posters say just a bit about themselves, to establish their bona fides (e.g. I'm Antiochian Orthodox, or Lutheran, or Catholic; I've studied here, or read on my own...etc.) Reason: the Internet is a difficult medium for establishing who I'm speaking with, and that can be relevant for understanding what's being said.

Someone posting on another thread recommended to me the work of Dr. Joseph Farrell, for example. Dr. Farrell appears to be a brilliant man--his Ph.D. is from Oxford--but he is also apparently not connected with a canonical Orthodox jurisdiction, and has written some interesting things (apparently) about the Giza pyramid and World War II. I will probably not consult Dr. Farrell's most recent work, though I own a copy of his writing on Maximus Confessor and find it well done. Call it bias, if you will. For me it's this simple: I'm 51 years old and I don't have a lot of time to read much. So I want to stick with primary sources (like Augustine, Boethius and Palamas) and with secondary authors whose provenance is clear (even if they aren't Orthodox).

*that comments to these posts be on this blog. Reason: for convenience's sake.

* that no assertion go unsupported. For example, in the comments you post on your blog, you say, "Both Gregory and Augustine agree that it is impossible to express God’s substance." This may well be so, but the citation from Augustine quoted here does not say that. Offering a cross reference to such a place would be helpful, not only for me but for all those not familiar with Augustine's thought.

I want to be fair to St. Augustine, even though I disagree with the filioque. It is better, to me, to say fewer and more narrowly-drawn things that are firmly established by evidence than make more interesting claims without such support. (Not that I think you're doing that in general--I just want to be very careful in my reading.)

Mone me si erro.

The unworthy priest,

Fr. Gregory Hogg

npmccallum said...

I'm Orthodox (OCA). I studied at Asubry Theological Seminary before I became Orthodox (a pastor in the Methodist tradition). I'm mostly self-taught when it comes to the Fathers, as my education did not have a strong patristics program. My primary area is pre-Nicenes. I don't really have any bones to pick. I'm not an embittered convert.

Regarding Dr. Farrell, it is true that he is non-canonical. I'm not sure if he is the same Dr. Farrell that wrote the Giza Pyramid fiction. His primary works are the Maximus work and God, History and the Dialectic.

Regarding the agreement of Augustine and Gregory on the inexpresibility of the substance of God, they both state it explicitly in the documents you quoted. Augustine says "it is necessary for our minds to be purified before that inexpressible reality can be inexpressibly seen by them." By "inexpressibly" (used twice) I take St. Augustine to mean that although it may be possible to see God's substance, it is not possible to express it (another possible meaning is that it is possible to express, but one would not dare to). St. Gregory puts it more plainly: "to define Him in words is an impossibility." Given that the "inexpressible" tradition is pretty universal in ealier sources (including the Scriptures), I think this is a fair interpretation.

Further, I think one can argue the "incomprehendable" tradition pretty strongly from Job. But by incomprehendable we (Orthodox) don't really mean incomprehendable in the same way the West would, since we further provide the essence/energies distinction. The West just tends to be more sloppy with substantia than we are with ousia. Hence, filioque.

Andrew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fr. Gregory Hogg said...


Thanks for your response.

I see what you're saying, that both Augustine and Gregory agree on the inexpressibility of God.

But they disagree as to the knowability of his substance. While Augustine says, "...it is difficult to contemplate and have full knowledge of God's substance" (I.1.3), Gregory says, "in my opinion it is impossible to express Him, and yet more impossible to conceive Him."


Fr. Gregory

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Dear Andrew,

Two things.

1. As one who teaches philosophy, and has taught theology, I have a strong bias toward the use of original sources over secondary sources of any type.

I recognize that academics can frequently write fiction or take speculative flights of fancy; Lewis Carroll was a first-rate logician, and nonetheless wrote "Alice in Wonderland" and "Jabberwocky." But what tips the scale for me wrt Dr. Farrell's work is this:
a. he doesn't belong to a recognized jurisdiction. That doesn't make him wrong; it just makes him unknown. I'd gladly read a careful analysis done by a Catholic, Lutheran or Reformed scholar who's not "on his own." At least I know their provenance.

b. assuming he's the same as the Giza pyramid guy, he's interacting with a community that is, to say the least, a bit eccentric--rather like the Art Bell crowd. Perhaps his position on all those disputed issues (Giza pyramid and WWII stuff) is correct. I don't know. I just don't see the value in taking a precious resource (time) to find out. Call me lazy. It's like the JFK assassination. Was there a second gunman? It doesn't much matter to me. What matters is that JFK was gone, and LBJ took over.

c. In spending my time and money, I confess to biases in favor of:
> peer reviewed/reviewable things over self-published things;
> paper things over computer file things;
> less expensive things over more expensive things.

So I find it a leap to spend $85 to buy a 250 MB computer file of a work that isn't peer-reviewed.

2. People who've known me a long time (I've got a track record on blogs and such) know that I have a *strong* bias against the use of pseudonyms or anonymizing tactics. Hence my request, repeated several times, that you identify yourself in some way. I think it's nice to know who I'm talking with, whenever possible. So...who are you?

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...


I note that you've deleted your post. Sorry to see that happen...

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Dear Andrew,

Forgive me--my bad! I didn't make the connection between your email of May 10 and your post to the blog. I hope you understand my reasons for not purchasing GHD. I must husband my resources carefully, and I prefer to focus on primary sources when possible.

Andrew said...

Fr Gregory,

I understand your reasons; and you're right, as one who spent a couple of years in a great books program, I wholeheartedly agree that sticking to primary sources is preferable.

If, however, you do ever want to shoot Dr Farrell an email, I'm sure he'd be more than willing to engage you. He has been cordial and helpful with me, a simple layman; I'm sure he'd love to dialogue with an educated priest like yourself. His email is vardas3ATaolDOTcom. That address is public information, so there is no problem with me mentioning it here.

Regarding this series of posts, I look forward to reading and interacting with them.

Andrew said...

'As the Arians rightly insisted, in God all accidents become substance.'


This statement alone ought to alarm any pious Christian. Asserting that Arian presuppositions are correct is fraught with serious implications, and anyone committed to Nicene Triadology should pause to consider these implications.

For instance, consider the Arian logic:

1) God is a simple essence, understood in the neoplatonic sense; in the divinity there is the metaphysical identity of essence, will, and activity
2) Ingenerate causation, as a characteristic of the Father, defines the divine essence
3) Therefore, the Son cannot be consubstantial with the Father because He is not ingenerate cause

The question then becomes, if the West believes the Arians 'rightly insisted' that 'in God all accidents become substance', where does this lead the West?

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

That statement got my attention too, Andrew. I'm wondering what St. John of Damascus might say on the same topic. Things have gotten a bit hectic around here, so the answer may have to wait.

Lucas said...

Fr. Gregory,
[bio intro following]

A worthy passage in this vein from St. John Chrysostom [comments mine]: "...if these instances are not sufficient fully to explain the whole matter, marvel not, for our argument is God, whom it is impossible to describe, or to imagine worthily; hence this man [St. John Ev.] nowhere assigns the name of His essence, (for it is not possible to say what God is, as to essence,) but everywhere he declares Him to us by His workings ["energies" - gr. energeia]." (Hom. Gospel of John 1.1.8)

St. John seems pretty explicit on the matter here; I look forward to your further postings with great interest.

Bio intro:
-Sbdn. Lucas Christensen
-Orthodox (Ant., Diocese of Midwest)
-BA Pastoral Min./Theo. Languages Concordia Univ. Wisconsin

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Subdeacon Lucas,

That's an excellent citation! I'm sorry I've been so delayed in making more posts on De trinitate. Things are unbelievably busy around here for a summer...

Sbdn. Lucas said...

I'm not familiar enough with the workings of Blogger to post the Greek here, but below is a link to the Migne. It takes a minute to load, but it's well worth the read, as the Church Fathers pub domain translation is somewhat wanting.

(Quick reference: the lines in question are 00292-00297)


Again, thank you Fr. Gregory for starting this series of posts.

In Christ,
Sbdn. Lucas

Sbdn. Lucas said...

Fr. Gregory,

In further mining St. John Chrysostom's homilies on the Gospel of St. John, I wanted to submit the following that, while not exactly in line with your current post, could certainly come in later. From Homily 5:

"And what, tell me, is the nature of this light [of Christ]? This kind (of light) is the object not of the senses, but of the intellect [nous; noêton], enlightening the soul herself." [comments mine]

I here presume, of course, that you may wish to tie in the points surrounding the Uncreated Light.

Hoping this finds you recovering from your automotive gymnastics:

In Christ,
Sbdn. Lucas