Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries About God

Elder Sophrony - short biography

Knowledge of God


Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov


From: http://www.pigizois.gr/agglika/sofronios/1_knowlegde_of_god.htm

O Thou Who art:
O God the Father, Almighty Master:
Who hast created us and brought us into this life:
Vouchsafe that we may know Thee,
The one true God.

The human spirit hungers for knowledge- for entire, integral knowledge. Nothing can destroy our longing to know and, naturally, our ultimate craving is for knowledge of Primordial Being, of Whom or What actually exists. All down the ages man has paid instinctive homage to this First Principle. Our fathers and forefathers reverenced Him in different ways because they did not know him ‘as he is, (I John 3.2). Some (surely they were among the wisest) set up ‘an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD’ (Acts 17.23). Even in our day we are continually made aware that reason per se cannot advance us over the threshold to the ‘Unknown’. God is our only means of access to this higher knowledge, if He will reveal Himself.

The problem of knowledge of God sends the mind searching back through the centuries for instances of God appearing to man through one or other of the prophets. There can be no doubt that for us, for the whole Christian world, one of the most important happenings recorded in the chronicles of time was God’s manifestation on Mount Sinai where Moses received new knowledge of Divine Being: ‘I AM THAT I AM’ (Exos. 3.14)- Jehovah. From that moment vast horizons opened out before mankind, and history took a new turn. A people’s spiritual condition is the real cause of historical events: it is not the visible that is of primary importance but the invisible, the spiritual. Perceptions and ideas concerning being, and the meaning of life generally, seek expression and in so doing instigate the historical event.

Moses, possessed of the supreme culture of Egypt, did not question that the revelation that he was so miraculously given came from Him Who had indeed created the whole universe. In the Name of this God, I AM, he persuaded the Jewish people to follow him. Invested with extraordinary power from Above, he performed many wonders. To Moses belongs the undying glory of having brought mankind nearer to Eternal Truth. Convinced of the authenticity of his vision, he issued his injunctions as prescripts from on High. All things were effected in the Name and by the Name of the I AM Who had revealed Himself. Mighty is this Name in its strength and holiness- it is action proceeding from God. This Name was the first ingress into the living eternity; the dayspring of knowledge of the unoriginate Absolute as I AM.

In the Name of Jehovah Moses led the still primitive Israelites out of their captivity in Egypt. During their wanderings in the desert, however, he discovered that his people were far from ready, despite the many miracles they had witnessed, to receive the sublime revelation of the Eternal. This became particularly clear as they approached the borders of the Promised Land. Their faint-heartedness and lack of faith caused the Lord to declare that none of those impregnated with the spirit of Egypt should see the ‘good land’ (Deut. 1.32, 35, 38). They would leave their bones in the wilderness, and Moses would encourage and prepare a new generation more capable of apprehending God- Invisible but holding all things in the palm of His hand.

Moses was endowed with exceptional genius but we esteem him more especially because he realised that the revelation granted to him, for all its grandeur and validity, was not yet completed. He sensed that He Who had revealed Himself was the ‘first and the last’ (Is. 44.6); that there could be no one and nothing before Him or after Him. And he sang: ‘Give ear, O ye heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth’ (Deut. 32, 1). At the same time he continued to pray for better knowledge of God, calling to Him out of the depths: ‘Shew me Thyself (as Thou art), that I may know thee’ (Exos. 33.13; 1 John 3.2). God heard his prayer and revealed Himself in so far as Moses could apprehend, for Moses could not contain the whole revelation. ‘I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee… (and) while my glory passeth by, I …will cover thee with my hand…And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen’ (Exos. 33.19, 22, 23).

That the revelation received by Moses was incomplete is shown in his testimony to the people that ‘the Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee… unto him ye shall hearken’. Also: ‘And the Lord said unto me … I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him’ (Deut. 18.15, 18). According to the Old Testament all Israel lived in expectation of the coming of the Prophet of whom ‘Moses wrote’ (John 5.46), the Prophet par excellence, ‘THAT prophet’ (John, 1.21). The Jewish people looked for the coming of the Messiah who when he was come would tell them ‘all things’ (John 4.25). Come and live among us, that we may know Thee, was the constant cry of the ancient Hebrews. Hence the name ‘Emmanuel being interpreted is, God with us’ (Is. 7.14; Matt. 1.23).

So for us Christians the focal point of the universe and the ultimate meaning of the entire history of the world is the coming of Jesus Christ, Who did not repudiate the archetypes of the Old Testament but vindicated them, unfolding to us their real significance and bringing new dimensions to all things- infinite, eternal dimensions. Christ’s new covenant announces the beginning of a fresh period in the history of mankind. Now the Divine sphere was reflected in the searchless grandeur of the love and humility of God, our Father. With the coming of Christ all was changed: the new revelation affected the destiny of the whole created world.

It was given to Moses to know that Absolute Primordial Being is not some general entity, some impersonal cosmic process or supra-personal, all-transcending ‘Non-Being’. It was proved to him that this Being had a personal character and was a living and life-giving God. Moses, however, did not receive a clear vision: he did not see God in light as the apostles saw Him on Mount Tabor- ‘Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was’ (Exos. 20.21). This can be interpreted variously but the stress lies on the incognisable character of God, though in what sense and in what connection we cannot be certain. Was Moses concerned with the impossibility of knowing the Essence of the Divine Being? Did he think that if God is Person, then He cannot be eternally single in Himself, for how could there be eternal metaphysical solitude? Here was this God ready to lead them but lead them where and for what purpose? What sort of immortality did He offer? Having reached the frontier of the Promised Land, Moses died.

And so He appeared, He to Whom the world owed its creation; and with rare exceptions ‘the world knew him not’ (John 1.10). The event was immeasurably beyond the ordinary man’s grasp. The first to recognise Him was John the Baptist, for which reason he was rightly termed the greatest ‘among them that are born of women’ and the last of the law and the prophets (cf. Matt. 11.9-13).

Moses, as a man, needed obvious tokens of the power and authority bestowed on him, if he were to impress the Israelites, still prone to idol-worship, and compel them to heed his teaching. But it is impossible for us Christians to read the first books of the Old Testament without being appalled. In the Name of Jehovah all those who resisted Moses suffered fearful retribution and often death. Mount Sinai ‘burned with fire’, and the people were brought ‘unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest’, to ‘the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words, which… they could not endure’ (Heb. 12.18-20).

It is the opposite with Christ. He came in utter meekness, the poorest of the poor with nowhere to lay His head. He had no authority, neither in the State nor even in the Synagogue founded on revelation from on High. He did not fight those who spurned Him. And it has been given to us to identify Him as the Pantocrator precisely because He ‘made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant’ (Phil. 2.7), submitting finally to duress and execution. As the Creator and true Master of all that exists, He had no need of force, no need to display the power to punish opposition. He came ‘to save the world’ (John 12.47), to tell us of the One True God. He discovered to us the Name of Father. He gave us the word which He Himself had received from the Father. He revealed God to us as Light in Whom is no darkness at all (cf. 1 John 1,5).

The world continues to flounder in the vicious circle of its material problems- economic, class, nationalistic, and the like- because people refuse to follow Christ. We have no wish to become like Him in all things: to become His brethren and through Him the beloved children of the Father and the chosen habitation of the Holy Spirit. In God’s pre-eternal Providence for man we are meant to participate in His Being- to be like unto Him in all things. By its very essence this design on God’s part for us excludes the slightest possibility of compulsion or predestination. And we as Christians must never renounce our goal lest we lose the inspiration to storm the kingdom of heaven. Experience shows all too clearly that once we Christians start reducing the scope of the revelation given to us by Christ and the Holy Spirit, we gradually cease to be attracted by the Light made manifest to us. If we are to preserve our saving hope, we must be bold. Christ said: ‘Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world’ (John, 16.33). He had overcome the world in this instance not so much as God but as Man for He did in truth become man.

Genuine Christian life is lived ‘in spirit and in truth’ (John 4.23), and so can be continued in all places and at all times since the divine commandments of Christ possess an absolute character. In other words, there are and can be no circumstances anywhere on earth which could make observance of the commandments impossible.

In its eternal essence Christian life is divine spirit and truth and therefore transcends all outward forms. But man comes into this world as tabula rasa, to ‘grow, wax strong in spirit, be filled with wisdom’ (cf. Luke 2.40), and so the necessity arises for some kind of organisation to discipline and co-ordinate the corporate life of human beings still far from perfect morally, intellectually and, more important, spiritually. Our fathers in the Church and the apostles who taught us to honour the true God were well aware that, though the life of the Divine Spirit excels all earthy institutions, this same Spirit still constructs for Himself a dwelling-place of a tangible nature to serve as a vessel for the preservation of His gifts. This habitation of the Holy Spirit is the Church, which through centuries of tempest and violence has watched over the precious treasure of Truth as revealed by God. (We need not be concerned at this point with zealots who value framework rather that content). ‘The Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty…Beholding….the glory of the Lord, we are changed into the same image from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3.17-18)’. The Church’s function is to lead the faithful to the luminous sphere of Divine Being. The Church is the spiritual centre of our world, encompassing the whole history of man. Those who through long ascetic struggle to abide in the Gospel precepts have become conscious of their liberty as sons of God no longer feel impeded by formal traditions- they can take general customs and ordinances in their stride. They have the example of Christ Who kept His Father’s commandments without transgressing the law of Moses with all its ‘burdens grievous to be borne’ (Luke 11.46).

In Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit God gave us the full and final revelation of Himself. His Being now for us is the First Reality, incomparably more evident than all the transient phenomena of this world. We sense His divine presence both within us and without: in the supreme majesty of the universe, in the human face, in the lightning flash of thought. He opens our eyes that we may behold and delight in the beauty of His creation. He fills our souls with love towards all mankind. His indescribably gentle touch pierces our heart. And in the hours when His imperishable Light illumines our heart we know that we shall not die. We know this with knowledge impossible to prove in the ordinary way but which for us requires no proof, since the Spirit Himself bears witness within us.

(The revelation of God as I AM THAT I AM proclaims the personal character of the Absolute God which is the core of His Life. To interpret this revelation the Fathers adopted the philosophical term hypostasis, which first and foremost conveys actuality and can be applied to things, to man or to God. In many instances it was used as a synonym for essence. (Substance is the exact Latin translation.) In the second Epistle to the Corinthians (2 Cor 11.17) hypostasis denotes sober reality and is translated into English as confidence or assurance. In the Epistle to the Hebrews the term describes the Person of the Father: ‘Who being …the express image of his person’ (Heb. 1.3). Other renderings to be found in the same Epistle are substance- ‘Now faith is the substance of things hoped for’ (Heb, 2.1)- and very being- ‘the stamp of God’s very being’ (N.E.B. Heb. 1.3.). So then, these three words, Person, substance, very being, taken together impart the content of the Greek theological expression hypostasis, to be understood as comprising, on the one hand, the notion of Countenance, Person, while, on the other, stressing the cardinal importance of the personal dimension in Being. In the present text the terms Hypostasis and Person(a) are identical in meaning.)

Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov (2001) (2nd ed.) His Life is Mine. Chapter 1: Knowledge of God. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Article published in English on: 4-10-2006.

Last update: 4-10-2006.