Adjectives as Idols

Orthodox thinking doesn’t pair adjectives with the word “God”.

As I watch a spokesman for a group of fundamentalists talk about how “God is not a condemning god”, I realize that a simple way to express our apophaticism is to respond: Orthodox thinking doesn’t pair adjectives with the word “God”.

God is incomparable, indescribable, beyond understanding, not susceptible to analogy, and even these words cannot be considered attributes of God, but only descriptions of our unknowing.

The temptation in the culture is strong, to personalize and customize God, to make a god that does not worry or scare us, a god we understand, that fits our ideas, and fits our expectations. But there is no such deity. As surely as a stone idol, the god of our imagination is just that – imaginary. In regard to that, we can only be atheists.

People feel uncomfortable not being able to say “God is loving” or “God is just”, despite the fact that their own scriptures contradict them constantly, because they are referring to created concepts that exist only in their minds. But God cannot be expressed in Dixie Cup sayings or Hallmark sentiments.

The word “God” is not a name, but refers to our inability to know – to the impossibility of attaining to knowledge of God. The word “God” is a confession that there is something that doesn’t even share what we think of as existence. If God exists, then we do not, and vice versa.

If God could be contained in created human concepts, then he would be a small “god”, less than the concepts that contain him – he would be a homonculus, not God. But we reject as heresy the very attempt to approach knowledge of God through religious philosophy, which can only sculpt idols from ideas that were once carved out of wood.

God is so unknowable, that we cannot even refer to God as unknowable. God is so beyond the possibility of human knowledge, that if God were there, real, existed (all words we cannot use of God), it would be irrelevant to our understanding.

In fact, the only way for God to be known is to make Himself known, on his own initiative, and then to be known, since God cannot be contained in human thoughts, God would have to become man, and indeed make possible the union of God and man without the reduction of one or destruction of the other: The Incarnation, which only the Orthodox hold to in its fullness. Even then, we would have no understanding of God’s essence, but rather union with God through the person of the Incarnate One. We would know love, as God’s uncreated energy, which is God, but we would not know the essence. Rather, we would know love through the person, through Christ. The same is true of justice. And mercy. And so on. We would know God by grace, through grace, and in a particular person, Jesus Christ.

We would no then claim to “know God” the way it is common to do among the heterodox, proceeding to describe God’s attribues. We would, however, recognize the activity of God toward us, through Christ. God loves us, God has mercy on us, God chastises us, and so on.

This is why when many heterodox begin a conversation with “Do you believe God exists?” or “Do you believe God is a loving God?” or “Do you believe God is love?” I say “no”. Given what and how they’re asking, I prefer to swear off the wrong thing so we can talk about the true thing. Even when we Orthodox write that “God is love” we do not believe this refers to God’s essence, nor is this the name of a person. Rather, we refer to the energies of God, in humility, believing even then our understanding is neither comprehensive nor perfect. And any significant knowledge occurs only by interaction – synergy – and deep knowledge comes only to very advanced ascetics.

14 thoughts on “Adjectives as Idols”

  1. I think you did a great job of keeping intact our apophatic perspective. Even the saints’ experience of God’s Uncreated Energies is an unknowing. We don’t understand God rationally even when we become deified. The words St. Paul heard in the third heaven of theoria were ineffable and unutterable. Indeed, as you averred, concepts have no relation to God, His Essence or His Energies. The non-Orthodox are worshipping the Golden Calf when they read the Bible as a treasure-trove of concepts about God. They are certainly very “religious”, as Romanides would put it. Even the saint, whose nous is filled with the Spirit only, to the exclusion of all fantasia, still has a rational intellect which can do no more than produce thoughts which are according to True Reason. These thoughts are still not glorification. Having said this, these True thoughts are no small thing. They are the tools of spiritual fatherhood. However, they are not magical or ratio-mystical incantations, and can only can lead others to glorification with the accompanying willingness of the spiritual child to undergo katharsis and with the communication of the Grace of God, when and if God grants it.

  2. ‘We would no then claim to “know God” the way it is common to do among the heterodox, proceeding to describe God’s attribues.’

    My brother-in-law teaches theology at Talbot Theological Seminary, the seminary in association with Biola University in Southern California, and he’s teaching a class next semester on the attributes of God. He asked me today if there were any Eastern Fathers who dealt substantively with the subject, hoping that he could incorporate this into the reading for the class and his lectures. I was with my family, and I didn’t really want to drag them along in getting into it with him, but I briefly mentioned to him that he probably wasn’t going to find what he was looking for due to the contrary doctrines of God in operation within the East and the West; essence/energies vs. absolute divine simplicity. Frankly, I don’t really know enough about the issue to speak intelligently with him about it, but was my gut reaction to his question correct? Could you elaborate more on this?

  3. Yes, he’ll find no Orthodox treatment of God having attributes, because that’s an Augustinian theology (or, more correctly, religious philosophy and system of speculation) that was rejected by the Orthodox. The Orthodox theology is often called Cappadocian, for the Cappadocian fathers who defended it, but it’s simply the theology of the Apostles.

    For a substantive treatment of this, I prefer Vladimir Lossky’s “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church”. There are other works. I’ve elsewhere mentioned God, History, and Dialectic.

    For popular consumption, there’s an audio recording entitled The Western God by Fr. Michael Azkoul. I would consider the tape quite moderate in its explanation, though some of Fr. Michael’s other material is more extreme than the Fathers of our own Church. And I don’t even like that word “extreme” as generally having any substance. But that’s my opinion. The tape, though, is an excellent little introduction to the subject that’s easy to understand in a short sitting for people who have no exposure to the way we really regard these issues.

  4. Would you happen to know where specifically in Farrell’s work he speaks about the problem of God having attributes? I was slowly making my way through it prior to Great Lent, but I figured I probably ought to read something more conducive to the nature of the season, so I temporarily put it down. I am the ‘Honorary Mac Guy’, in case you were wondering.

  5. I read Farrell’s appendix to his Free Choice, and in that he seems to use ‘attributes’ and ‘energies’ interchangeably. I was under the impression that they are not the same.

    Was I reading him correctly?

  6. Rhetorically, if he wants you to move in a certain direction, he may link them, but I can tell you he doesn’t see them as the same thing. In fact, while attributes are a part of Western-Augustinian theology, the notion is foreign to Orthodox theology, and that’s a point he makes repeatedly in his other books, culminating in God, History, and Dialectic.

  7. Yep. Our hymnography ascribes things to God, as does our scriptures:

    “God is a jealous God.”
    “…Lest he become angry…”

    We do not understand these, however, in the sense that English adjectives convey to the heterodox mind. We consider them not attributes of a person, nor conditions of a person, but instead actions or, if you will, energies of a person. For us, as the Muslims say “God be merciful” we may say “Lord have mercy”. The energies of God are God uncreate, and we do not consider these to be analogous to our own condition: “My ways are not your ways.”

    So there are a handful of ways that adjectives are used:
    * One might say God is loving. But more correctly, God loves us. In a particular place and time, or for all eternity particular persons. But never in general.
    * One might say God is a jealous God. And there we mean not an attribute of God, but an energy, if you will.
    * We might say God be merciful to me a sinner, where we more often say “have mercy on me” – we are not asking God to change his quality but to change his activity toward us; this is an important distinction.
    * When we say God is holy. Remember, we also say that none is holy except God. So we are definitely not making an analogy – how can we? Instead, we are stating that what God is, is incomparable, beyond being beyond comparison, unattainable by anything else, and still we remember that we refer to God’s energies, and not God’s essence, which is indescribable. To say that God is holy is like saying that God is the Lord. God is what we can never be, except by deification – by becoming God. And that is a union in the Energies of God, not the essence.

    I’m willing to be corrected, of course, if I’ve erred, but I think I haven’t.

  8. Does not St. John say that “God is love”?

    “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God. And every one that loves is born of God and knows God. He that loves not, knows not God, ***for God is love.*** By this was the love of God manifested towards us, because God has sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we may live through him. In this is love – not as though we have loved God, but because He has first loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God has so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

    Expresses the apophatic nicely (“no one has seen God at any time”), while also making the statement that God is love.


    – V.

  9. I don’t think there’s more to respond to this than my response to Steve. Orthodoxy is in the distinctions.

  10. To sum, any descriptives of God would be that which is by nature unlimited (holiness, for example) – His transcendence – or that which is expressive of action (love, for example) – His energies.

    Fair summary?

    – V.

  11. Well, I recommend Lossky’s book “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church”. It makes these things quite clear. Some of your question is not answerable, given Orthodox belief. You’re talking of natures of descriptives and creating a category of unlimitedness. The question really can’t be answered, but no, that’s not what we believe.

  12. Here’s a quotation from St. Nicholas Kavasilas to help V. understand how ‘God is love’, but not in an adjectival sense:

    “As God’s loving-kindness is ineffable and His love for our race surpasses human speech and reason, so too it belongs to the divine goodness alone, for this is ‘the peace of God which passes all understanding’ (Phil. 4:7). Likewise it follows that His union with those whom He loves surpasses every union of which one might conceive, and cannot be compared with any model.”

    The Life in Christ, trans. C.J. deCatanzaro (Crestwood 1974) 45-46.

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