Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Philosophy


Knowledge and Vision of God in Cappadocian Fathers
by Anita Strezova - Macquarie University, Sydney

Source:  http://www.theandros.com/cappavision.html



The recurrent charges of atheism carried by the Cappadocian fathers against the neo-Arian Eunomius, show to what extent the Byzantine theologians of the fourth and fifth centuries were faced with the possibility of intellectualism in the knowledge of God. The main argument is Eunomius’s claim on the absolute intelligibility of the divine essence. He insists on the perfect simplicity of the divine being, arguing that God’s nature can be revealed in language and known through the concept of ungeneracy. The idea that human discourse can describe the divine essence is the point to which Cappadocians object. However, the inability of mind to grasp the divine essence points to the problem of skepticism. If we are unable to understand the mystery of God, how we will be able to understand the paradox of Christian revelation and unravel the purpose of creation? This article explores theological and philosophical answers for the question of knowledge and vision of God, as proposed by Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian.

Knowledge of God

The Cappadocians are regarded as exponents of the negative theology, and of the mystical tradition in Christianity. The supreme antinomy of the Triune God, unknowable and knowable, incommunicable and communicable, transcendent and immanent is the primary locus of their apophaticism. Moreover, the negative theology of the Cappadocians is balanced by their acute sense of the revelation of God ad extra (equally predicated of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). [1] Thus, they are compelled to recognise an ineffable distinction between the essence (ousia) and energies (energeiai) within the uncreated God. The divine nature is eternally transcendent and beyond man”s experience and comprehension. The energies of God, on the other hand, are forces proper to, and inseparable from God’s essence, in which He manifests, communicates and gives Himself to us. [2] Thus, the knowledge and existence of God is understood by Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian in two different modes: inside and outside the essence. Further, the Cappadocians acknowledge two methods of understanding and experiencing God. The first is a method of knowledge by epinoia, an intellectual and rational approximation (a category of kataphatic knowledge). [3] It is used to describe God in a rational realm of the created world and formulates in language manifestations of God in His names and energies. The second is the method of knowledge by means of direct experience. It goes beyond sense perceptions (a category of apophaticism) towards union with God. This constitutes a paradox where God is seen as knowable (kataphasis) and unknowable (apophasis) at the same time.

Gregory of Nyssa agrees that a real knowledge of God is not to be found in the created world, but was careful not to make the cognitive knowledge, even if necessarily limited, seem unimportant. [4] He insists on the absolute transcendence and unknowability of the Trinity, while emphasising the reasonable accuracy of words as verbal signifiers. [5] Thus, he does not aspire to develop a method of apophatic theology only in the sense of private or negative statements. [6] Instead, he recognises the need for plurality of discourses, since neither the apophasis nor the kataphasis can properly describe the nature of God. [7] . The main characteristic of Gregory’s via negativa is concrete experience of theology against the limits of language. Human comprehension becomes a method of negation, rather than affirmation, and truth rises above (simply because it lies beyond) cognitive knowledge. Here, one who truly loves, experiences, and knows God (to the extent that such is humanly possible) is compelled to speak as follow: God is not Good, Truth, Justice, and so on (these positive affirmations limit God to categories appropriate to human speech). [8] God is not the opposite of these things: evil, falsehood, and injustice, and so on. Rather, these characteristics must be refuted since they are the products of human experience of the created universe. [9]

The notion of unknowability does not imply the impossibility of a theoretical response to God in words and concepts. In fact, Gods attributes can be positively designated in images and doctrines, and God is encountered through images and stories in the realm of history. [10] The kataphatic qualities which are affirmatively predicated of God, such as “being”, “substance”, “life”, “power” and the like, cannot describe ultimate realities. Instead they speak of relations and analogies and point to the reality of God’s nature rather than describing its nature. [11] These however, must not be absolutised as conveying an understanding of the divine reality, but at the same time they do provide some useful clues. [12] “For we say, it may be, that the Deity is incorruptible, or powerful, or whatever else we are accustomed to say of Him. But in each of these terms we find a peculiar sense, fit to be understood or asserted of the Divine nature, yet not expressing that which that nature is in its essence”. [13] “Now the divine nature as it is in itself, according to its essence, transcends every act of comprehensive knowledge and cannot be approached or attained by our speculation”. [14] God is above every name, thought or concept, not only of humans, but also of angels, and above any linguistic expression, transcendent and incomprehensible. [15] Because the divine essence is perfectly ungraspable and cannot be compared to anything”, [16] every idea made up about God is essentially an idol, a false likeness, declared Gregory of Nyssa . [17]

Gregory identifies that one of the most important differences between the creator and the creatures is the presence or absence of diastēma (ordinarily translated as “interval”). The term diastema indicates the distance in time and space, the spatial and temporal limitation separating the Creator from all creation. The human mind with its diastemic nature is “not able to comprehend a nature that has no dimension”. [18] In turn, the diastemic gulf between infinite God and finite creatures, is not just a stopping point for human knowledge of God, but is an open field for action. [19]

Gregory of Nyssa distinguishes between two types of names; those relating to the exterior manifestation of God, and those relating to the interior relationship of the Trinity (disregarding the acts of creation and redemption). [20] These in turn can have a negative or positive signification. Of the divine names some have the negative meaning such are “invisible”, “timeless”, ineffable”. These terms do not indicate that God is inferior to anything or lacking in anything, but that He is pre-eminently separated from everything that exists. Other terms such are Essence, Intellect, and Life, have the affirmative signification and indicate that He is the cause of all. [21] Both the affirmative and negative names are common to the whole Godhead. However, if we call Him the One, Good, Spirit, Being itself, Father, God, Creator, Lord we do so improperly. Instead of pronouncing His name, we are only using the most exceptional names we can find. [22]

Basil often discusses the human limits involved in studying God. He readily identified that “language is powerless to express [even] what the mind conceives.” For him, not only divine essence is undefinable, unnameable and unknowable but humans do not even know the essence of the ground on which they are standing. [23] In general knowledge of God may be beyond both the apophatic and kataphatic realms and human language is incapable of grasping the divine nature. However, the negative theology (apophasis) which relies on denial or negation as higher form of argumentation and understanding” is more suitable linguistic method to designate the transcendence of the divine essence. [24] Therefore, Basil employed alpha privatives to say what God is not, i.e., arretos, aidios aggenetos, athanatos, atheatos, ameres, apathes, and so on. According to Basil, not only the divine essence alone but also created essences could not be expressed in concepts. In regards to names, applicable to God, the negative names tell us what God is not, forbidding the use of concepts alien to God. The kataphatic attributes point out what must be conceived when we think of God. They show us God as He reveals Himself to created beings. [25] But there is not one among all the divine names expressing what God is in essence, since all types of names are posterior to the divinity. [26] The divine names reveal his energies which descend towards the created world, yet they do not draw humanity closer to his inaccessible essence. God’s nature remains beyond the human capacity for comprehension and knowledge. “The peace of God surpasses all understanding,” asserted Basil alluding to Philippians 4, 7. [27] Yet, what can be said about God in his being? Can human language express the antinomy of transcendental Christian God revealing Himself in this world as creator and redeemer? [28]

The distinction between divine essence and energies forms part of theological resource by which Basil the Great defends the transcendence of God and the reality of God’s communication of himself to his creation. [29] The essence of God and its properties cannot be comprehended by humans in any other ways, except apophatically. [30]   However, it is possible to know God in a certain fashion through the entire creation, and more through creation of humanity. [31] “We know the greatness of God, his power, his wisdom, his goodness, his providence over us and the justness of His judgments, but we do not undertake to approach near to his essence. His operations come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach.” [32]

The divine attributes are not effects foreign to the divine essence. They are not acts exterior to God depending on His will, like the creation of the world or acts of providence. [33] . The divine energies are natural processions of God Himself, a mode of existence, which is proper to Him. [34] The divine energies belong at the same time, to both domains of theologia and oikonomia. They are eternal and an inseparable force of the Trinity existing independently of the created act. Yet, they display the infinite variety of loving acts of God towards the creation. [35] The divine energies are present everywhere: in beings with or without reason, with or without life, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the capacity of the nature which receives them. [36] They represent a major link among the individual substances of the Trinity, originating in the Father, being communicated by the Son in the Holy Spirit.

The Trinitarian divine energies themselves, which proceed from all three divine hypostases at once, are supernatural, eternal and uncreated. However, what energies affect and produce is a dynamic continuous activity of the divine economy on the creation. [37] Through them, we know the wonders of God, their beauty, the order, and the splendour of created beings. Also, we behold the magnificent names of God: Wisdom, Life, Power, Justice, Love, Being, God and the infinity of other names which are unknown to us. [38]

Gregory the Theologian is a rhetorician and a philosopher who defends Christian scholarship. However, he knows that human comprehension has its boundaries and human reason cannot grasp the nature of the divine. Although the purity of heart and leisure of contemplation are preconditions for the knowledge of God, they do not lead one to recognise His ousia. Only God’s works and acts (energeiai) can be known, that which constitutes the hinder parts of God exposed to Moses between the gaps in the cliff in Exodus 33:23. [39]

Gregory points that a critical awareness of nature, or an astute application of the reasoning faculty, can tell us that God is, but not what he is. The nature of God’s essence remains “unknown even to the Seraphim”. Thus, all we can assume with any certainty is what God is not. [40] . Everything referred to God cataphatically, shows not the divine nature but “the things about His nature”. [41]

Referring to Plato without naming him, Gregory changes the famous statement from the Timaeus to emphasise the difficulty in forming an adequate concept of God. [42] To grasp “the whole of so great a Subject”, he claims, is impossible and impracticable not merely to the utterly careless and ignorant, but even to those who are exalted and who love God. The darkness of this world and the thick covering of the flesh is an obstacle to full understanding of God’s nature. [43] Yet, what is apprehended of God through His salvational acts in the world, may perhaps be expressed by language, albeit imperfectly, only by those who are not quite deprived of their hearing, or indolent of understanding. [44]

The human beings are unable to comprehend the whole world and to perceive the divinity. However, it is possible for them to acquire indistinct (amydros) and weak (asthēnis) vision of God according to his attributes (ta kath autou) [45] This does not mean that we can label Him as a separate being who is the “cause” of goodness, being, stone, and so on. Rather, for God to cause or create beings is to multiply Himself into the world so he becomes “all things in all things” and therefore truly subject to all names. However, it does not mean that God gives us information, true statements about himself, which we could not know otherwise, but rather He reveals Himself to us. The positive attributes “proper to God” (logoi theoprepeis) can set someone’s mind with an answer about God at least formally and schematically, [46] while an unbroken chain of negations leads one away from Him. [47] Nevertheless, the reason prefers to remain speechless and silent before the Triune God, whose essence remains “deep and unfathomable mystery.” [48] To reach to this mystery is to become “godlike”, possessing by grace what the Holy Trinity possesses by nature. [49] One cannot achieve salvation on ones own initiative; one’s salvation is rather dependent on God’s grace. [50]

Ascent to God

The noetic and onomastic quest for God, in Cappadocian fathers, does not lead to the spirituality of escape, or return to God through the intellect. In their theological doctrine union with God or theosis, is the ultimate aim of the quest for knowledge of God through apophaticism”. [51] The negations, as well as serving to qualify positive statements about God, act as a springboard whereby the mystic moves up with all his or her being into the living mystery of God. [52] This is the state of deification, of the “mingling” of human soul with Christ and the Holy Spirit, [53] of the conscious meeting with the living God. [54] However, the doctrine of vision and knowledge of God no longer involves a substratum of the intellectualistic thought as it was the case with Neoplatonism. The philosophical intellectualism is superseded and transformed in the doctrinal synthesis crowned in the dogma of Trinity. [55]

Gregory of Nyssa devotes special attention to the spiritual ascent towards God. According to him, knowledge of and communion with God, are bound and explicitly considered as identical. [56] It is union with God that conditions knowledge of God, and not the vice versa. The infinite and never completed character of this union with God is signified by darkness. [57] The theme of Moses drawing closer to God in the ascent of Sinai is the favorite metaphor for conveying the divine transcendence. [58]

For Gregory, the human person represents an image of uncreated beauty, and as such, it must have something in it akin to the divine goodness, which it was made to enjoy. By a “certain affinity with the divine” mingled with human nature, God draws humanity to His own self. [59] Because God can never be seen in himself, his image is seen in the mirror of the purified soul. But to acquire knowledge of God, each person must undertake a spiritual journey.

The journey of the soul is a mountain steep difficult to climb, only few people approach its peak. [60] The movement starts from the light, goes through the cloud into the darkness at the peak of the mountaintop, whereby the transcendent is known through “not knowing”. [61] The three ways of soul’s ascent are all interconnected, building one upon the next in the faithful seeker’s quest for union with God.

The first way proceeds by inference from the activities of God revealed to the senses. It is a struggle for apatheia and love, marked by cleansing of the soul from all extraneous aspects and by restoring the likeness of God. [62] In fact, the mind cannot see the “place of God” in itself unless it is raised higher than all the representations of objects. It has to be stripped off all the passions that bind his mind to sensory matters via representation. [63] Removing the inner chatter of sensual or earthly thoughts, the soul places the mind in a receptive state, awaiting God. In this stage the person starts to acquire the virtue of detachment.

The second way is through introspection. This leads to the statement that we have God within us by our reflection of his goodness in our own virtuous lives, rather than through any “face-to-face vision” (anti prosōpou). [64] This assumption is based on a fundamental Christian doctrine: the soteriological perspective of man as created in the image and likeness of God. As the Godhead remains within the soul, so He grants to soul the rational facilities necessary for contemplation of God [65] However, to gain knowledge of God and himself, the human soul needs to practice aphairesis. In other words, it must cast off its reliance on knowledge, and embrace the groundlessness of an “ineffable knowledge”. [66] From now on, the celestial journey of the soul is interiorised; the soul finds its native land, within itself, by recovering its primitive state.

The way of “not seeing and not knowing”, is the final stage of souls journey. It is usually referred to as “uncovered (aperikalyptōs) vision”, which no longer runs through the “veil of existing things”. It is a path that goes beyond vision, beyond Theōria and beyond intelligence, to an area where knowledge is suppressed and love alone remains or rather where gnōsis becomes agapē. Desiring God more and more and leading to good blessings of divine love and divine counsel under the influence of “blessed erōs”, the soul continuously reaches out for God. In fully shedding the senses and cognitive reason as sources of truth, the soul finally realises its inability to grasp the ineffable and transcendent God and simply penetrates deeper, into darkness”. [67] The image of the darkness is the highlight of Gregory’s spiritual theology. [68] The soul realises the union with God is endless, the ascent to God has no limit, the beatitude is an infinite progression. [69]

Knowledge, according to Basil, is a “journey from man’s conscience to God”. This journey has the image of God in man as its point of departure, and knowledge of God as its goal. [70] The image of God in man is the “mind”, which is not static and external. [71] The human nous concerns the ultimate and dynamic presence of God in man, and its primary role is to know God by means of entering a personal relationship with Him. If the human mind is scattered outwards and muted through the senses into the world, then it must return from its fallen position to the natural state, claims Basil. [72] It must not be manipulated by the influences of the world and extraneous things through the senses. The prodigal, sinful and darkened mind has to withdraw within itself, and of its own accord ascends to contemplating God. Guidant by the Holy Spirit and illuminated by the uncreated Light (the state of theosis), the nous returns within the heart. “Being God by nature, the Holy Spirit deifies by grace those who still belong to a nature subjected to change”. [73] Through Him man knows God, “the like by the like”. [74]

The process of restoration and union with God, according to Gregory the Theologian, starts with the deliverance from the world. “To break from the world and be united with God, gaining the things above by means of the things below, and acquiring, through goods which are unstable and pass away, those that are stable and abide”. [75] This step involves various forms of self denial or voluntary renunciation of the world, in order to unite with God. In other words, a relationship with the incarnate Logos is impossible without mortification of the flesh. For only through life in Christ does the restoration of human nature gain meaning. One will not only cease to be sinner or a slave; one becomes Godlike. [76] In this world, Gregory claims, we converse with God “in a cloud” like Moses, for God has set darkness between Himself and us. The darkness must be overcome as an obstruction to vision of the ineffable divine Light (God). [77] “In the Fourth Theological Oration, Gregory refers explicitly to apocatastasis and by it he means the divinizing union of all rational creatures with God.” [78] Influenced by Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, he believed that "human creatures would at last attain to the perfect image of God according to which they were created." [79] This process entails not only perfection of the individual but unifying and transforming of the entire human race in the body of Christ. [80]

As follows, deification "is the highest stage of the knowledge of God, when the incomprehensible God becomes comprehensible, so far as this is possible for the human nature.” [81] Yet, union with God is to be understood in the Christological context of salvation. It could be only experienced through personal encounter with the Spirit of God, the deifying energy of God. [82] The process of transforming humanity can be misunderstood outside the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. Acquisition of divine grace begins with Baptism, continues in the Eucharist [83] and reaches fulfillment after the Resurrection of the dead. At the end the human person will be mysteriously reconstructed and transformed by the divine energies (dunameis) to incorruption, glory and a spiritualised body (I Cor. 15, 44).  “Whoever has been permitted to escape from matter by reason and contemplation, and holds communion with God, the purest Light, is blessed”, declared Gregory. His ascent from matter is conferred by true philosophy “leading to the unity which is perceived in the Trinity”. [84] Gregory is predecessor of the teaching of God as light. He also speaks about entire hierarchy of lights beginning from God the Trinity. [85]

The Trinitarian Divine light is absolutely transcendent and is beyond everything sensible, yet it penetrates through all created world. [86] The uncreated light manifests to the apostles at the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, [87] is seen during prayer by saints, and is symbolically represented by the halo in icons. It is also “the Light of the Age to come”. [88] Although it was contemplated with corporeal eyes, the “light of the Lord’s Transfiguration had no beginning and no end. Because it belongs to the mystical theology according to apophasis, it remained uncircumscribed (in space) and unperceived by the senses. [89]

The event of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor has twofold significance, but the two aspects are in truth one. First, it is the revelation of God, for what the disciples see is the divinity of Christ and the light of his Godhead. Second, it is deification of man, for the human nature assumed by Christ appeared in divine glory. [90] Gregory believed that all existing things participate in this Divine light to a certain degree, and to a proportionate degree they acquire spiritual knowledge of created things.

There are other types of light, related to God’s actions in the history of humanity. [91] The angels, the human person, the entire Bible, the whole life of the Church are regarded as an unceasing revelation of the Divine light. Gregory creates special “terminology of light” which appears to be the foundation of his entire theological teaching. [92]

God the Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity stands at the centre of Cappadocians’ mystical experience. As Vladimir Lossky notes: “the Incomprehensible reveals Himself in the fact of His being incomprehensible, for His transcendence is firmly established in the fact that God is at the same time “both monad and triad”. [93] The doctrine of the Trinity locates with surgical precision the central metaphysical antinomy of the Absolute who is at the same time, ‘One ousia or essence and Three persons or hypostases’. [94]

The theological dogma of God as one essence or substance (ousia) and three persons or hypostasis is formulated by the Cappadocian Fathers. Given the circumstances in the fourth century, they never pretend their formula is more than the best possible description of the divine mystery. At this point, however, a ground for distinguishing the three hypostases was found, one which leaves the ontological simplicity of the divine essence uncompromised. God is “undivided in Three who are distinct” (ameristos en memerismenois). [95] What this means depends on the doctrine that each hypostasis “inheres” in the other two, [96] the doctrine called by the Greeks perihōrēsis and by the Latins communicatio idiomatum. Further clarification of this Trinitarian problem will come after the Christological issue receives initial resolution at Chalcedon in 451.

The Cappadocians never consider the “Father”, “Son”, and “Holy Spirit” simply as names associated with various workings of one God, but as distinct, non-interchangeable Persons within the divine essence. As the three divine Persons share a single will and energy, they are not three gods, that is, three divine beings, but rather one God, that is, a single divine being. The Byzantine church has expressed by the term homoousios the consubstantiality of the Three, the mysterious identity of the Monad and of the Triad, and the identity of one essence in three persons or hypostases. [Lossky, Mystical Theology, 48-49]

The term homoousios (consubstantial) does not identify the Son with the Father hypostatically, but only on the level of ousia. Yet the Father is not the Son or the Spirit. The Son is not the Father or the Spirit and the Spirit is not the Father or the Son. [97] The Father is distinguished as Father to the Son and Source of the Spirit. The Son is the living, substantial image of the Father, bearing in Himself the whole Father, in all things equal to Him, differing only by being begotten by the Father who is the Begetter. [98] The Holy Spirit is the perfect and unchangeable image of the Son proceeding from the Father and through the Son. [99]

The divinity is One, but the Three hypostases are personal identities, irreducible to each other in their personal being. They “possess divinity” and divinity is “in them”. [100] Although the divinity is one in essence, yet the hypostases are distinguished by their personal properties from what they share with one another. [101] These characteristics or properties are explained by distinct relations that hypostases bear towards one another on the basis of the origins of Son and Spirit from the unoriginate Father. On this basis the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one in all respects, except in that of not being begotten, that of being begotten, and that of procession. [102] “The Father begets, being unbegotten, the Son is begotten, and is not the Father, the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son but He proceeds from the Father and it is the image of the Son”. [103] "The terms used to describe the Son are reflective of His qualities in relation to the Father. To be begotten of the Father is the property of the Son alone, distinct from the property of procession proper to the Spirit. The difference in such qualities involves no distinction of dignity, but only of the manner of coming into being." [104]

The relation of origin between the hypostases of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in the Trinity is understood in an apophatic sense. Although it is above all a negation showing us the Father is neither the Son nor the Holy Spirit, the relation of origin does not include the manner of the divine processions. “When we confess the individuality of the hypostasis we dwell in the monarchy without dividing the theology into fragments”. [105]

The recovery of eternal origin leads to discovery of a new category. It is a category of the mutual relations (skheseis) [106] which remain unconfused, immovable, and distinct for each hypostasis, [107] in particularly to the hypostasis of the Father. As a cause (aitia) and principal (arkhē) of the two other persons, the Father is also the source of relations from whom the hypostases receive their distinct characteristics. The Father shares with the Son and the Holy Spirit the unity and perfection of his incomprehensible divinity in an essential identity of nature. [108] “He derives from himself His being, and does not derive a single quality from another. Rather, He is Himself the beginning and cause of existence of all things both to their nature and their mode of being”. [109] As the existence of a divine Father implies the existence of a divine Son, so the existence of a divine Head implies the existence of divine Reason (Logos) and divine Spirit (Pneuma). “All then the Son and the Spirit have is from the Father, even their beings: and unless the Father is, neither the Son nor the Spirit is.” [110]

The personal attributes of Christ are often referred to in relation to the first person of the Holy Trinity. He is “the identical image of the Father”, “begotten of the Father before all ages”, “the light from light”. God the Holy Spirit is glorified together with the Father and the Son, who eternally proceeds from the Father “through the Son” (temporal procession). These attributes safeguard the distinction of the three hypostases in one nature. For the Son, who is begotten of the Father before all ages, is not the Father, but He is what the Father is. The Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father, is not the Son, because there is only one Begotten Son, but He is what the Son is. One consubstantial God in Three divine Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Three are One in Godhead, and the One is Three in properties; so that neither is the unity Sabellian, nor does the Trinity countenance the present evil divisions (Arianism). [111]

Because of the unity in essence (homoousios) the “indivisible, incomprehensible, unbuilt-up, non-circumscribed Trinity is to be worshipped and revered with adoration. There is only one Godhead, one Lordship, one dominion, one realm and dynasty, which without division is apportioned to the Persons, and is fitted to the essence severally”. [112]

The Cappadocian fathers safeguard the doctrine of God’s transcendence (theologia) by recognising the Person of the Father as the source of governing authority and Head (kephalē) of both the Son and the Holy Spirit. At the same time, they acknowledged the notion of the “absolute hypostatic difference and of the equally absolute essential identity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. [113] Further, they rejected the monarchianism of Arianism, which distinguished the divine essence into “greater and smaller”, and Sabellianism, which blurred the real distinctions between the three persons. [114]


Avoiding a nihilistic approach to God’s knowledge, while responding to the extreme claims of Eunomius, the Cappadocian fathers answer the common question for knowledge and accessibility of God. Reluctant to accept the theological understanding as a path to God, they argue for the infinity of God. However, to preserve God’s transcendence and avoid creating a mental “idol”, the three Cappadocians use simultaneously and interchangeably both apophatic and kataphatic terminology. The word, examples, analogy, theological tradition in both kataphatic and apophatic forms are used to reach the same goal, union with God the Trinity.

Moreover, to defend the paradox of the transcendent Christian God, who reveals Himself in this world as the creator and redeemer, the Cappadocians distinguish between the essence and energies. The divine essence signifies God’s absolute transcendence and humans will never participate in it either in this life or in the age to come. The divine energies, in which God comes out of Himself and reveals Himself to us, on the other hand, permeate all creation and we humans participate in them through grace. Ultimately, God manifests his whole being in attributes (or names) while preserving the transcendence of his essence. This constitutes a paradox where God is seen as knowable and unknowable.

Contrary to the mystical intellectualism of Alexandria in which the vision and knowledge of God in His essence involves a substratum of the intellectualistic thought according to the Neoplatonic schema, knowledge and union with God (theosis), is the ultimate aim of the apophatic quest according to the Cappadocian fathers. Lead by a burning love and longing for God, the soul goes above and beyond the perceptible and the intelligible in absolute ignorance or unknowing (agnōsia). This promotes a tendency towards the ever-greater plenitude, in which the theology of concepts is transformed into contemplation and dogmas are turned into mystery. It is a philosophy of ecstasy par excellence and standing in silence in an attitude of wonder, love, and praise before the majesty of the transcendent God who is incomprehensible to the human mind. God’s darkness is concealed by the light of knowledge of existing things, while complete unknowing is the knowledge of Him, who transcends all things.

So far as the theological interpretation of the dogma of the Trinity is concerned, the Cappadocians succeed in overthrowing Arianism, by distinguishing between the notions of ousia and hypostasis. In formulating a conception of God, as three persons in one essence, they take as their starting point not the unity of the ousia but the trinitarity of the hypostases. This formula allows faithful to understand difficult concepts, and approach closer to the supreme object of theologia. We cannot know what God is, only that He is, because he reveals himself in salvational history as Father, Son and Spirit.



[1] Marcus Plested, The Macarian Legacy: the place of Macarius-Symeon in the eastern Christian [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004] 57.
[2] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church [Cambridge: James Clarke & Co. 1973] 70.
[3] Matthew Steenberg, Epinoia & Ennoia: The Cappadocian Fathers on essence/energy and the human knowledge of God, http://www.monachos.net/mcsteenberg/on-line-pubs.shtml.
[4] Jonah Winters, “Saying Nothing about No-Thing: Apophatic Theology in the Classical World”, [Baha”i Library Online 1994], http://bahai-library.com/personal/jw/my.papers/apophatic.html.
[5] Emmanuel Clapsis, Orthodoxy in Conversation: Orthodox Ecumenical Engagements [Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2000] 42.
[6] L ena Karfíková, Řehoř z Nyssy:  Boží a lidská nekonečnost  [Praha: Oikúmené, 1999] 186
[7] Martin Vaňáč, „Apophatic Way in Gregory of Nyssa, Institut ekumenických studií v Praze“, http://www.iespraha.cz/?q=node/28#_ftn16.
[8] Bishop Auxentios, “The Iconic and Symbolic in Orthodox theology”, Orthodox Christian Information Centre, at http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/general/orth_icon.aspx.
[9] Dragaz Bulzan, “Apophaticism, Postmodernism and Language: Two Similar Cases of Theological Imbalance”, SJT, vol. 50, 3 [1997] 261-287 (268)
[10] John P. Price, “Transcendence and Images: the Apophatic and Kataphatic Reconsidered”, SFS, no.11-12  [1990-91] 194-201
[11] Robert Brightman, "Apophatic Theology and Divine Infinity in St. Gregory of Nyssa," Greek Orthodox Theological Review 18 [1973] 97-114 at 101.
[12] Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium, II, 61
[13] Gregory of Nyssa, To Ablabius; ed. Philip  Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2: Gregory of Nyssa [Grand Rapids, MI, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980] Vol. V
[14] Gregory of Nyssa, Homily on Beatitudes, Sermon 6, PG 44, 1269.
[15] Gregory of Nyssa; Contra Eunomium I, PG 44, 686; also Werner Jaeger and Hermann Langerbeck, Gregorii Nysseni Opera: Sermones, part I, ed. Gunther Heil, Adrian van Heck, Ernest Gebhardt, and Andreas Spira [Leiden: E. J. Brill 1967] 223.
[16] Gregory of Nyssa, De Vita Moysis, PG 44, 377.
[17] Gregory of Nyssa, Homily on Beatitudes, PG 44, 1269A; see also Brooks Otis, Gregory of Nyssa and the Cappadocian Conception of Time, ", Studia Patristica, 117 [1976] 327-57 at 341.
[18] Brightman, “Apophatic theology and divine infinity” 105.
[19] P.M. Blowers, “Maximus the Confessor, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Concept of Perpetual Progress”, VC, vol. 46 [1993] 151-171
[20] Gregory of Nyssa, Homily on Beatitudes, Sermon 6; PG 44, 1269; see also Jaeger and Langerbeck, Gregorii Nysseni Opera, 93-111
[21] John of Damascus, DFO I, 12; PG 94, 844CD
[22] Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, V, 12; PG 9, 116; see also Jaeger, Gregorii Nysseni Opera, 686; compare with Raul Mortley, From Word to Silence II: The Way of Negation, Christian and Greek [Bonn: Hanstein 1986] 187, 183
[23] Basil the Great, Adversus Eunomium I, 12, PG 29, 540CD; compare with John F. Callahan. “Greek philosophy and the Cappadocian cosmology”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, no.12 [1958] 31-55 at 49-50; and Bernard Sesboüé, Basile de Césarée: Suivi de Eunome Apologie, critiques G. M. de Durand and L. Doutreleau, Studie Chretiennes [Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf 1982] 212-216
[24] M.P. Begzos, “Apophaticism in the Theology of the Eastern Church: The Modern Critical Function of a Traditional Theory”, GTOR, vol. 41, 4 [1996] 327-357
[25] Basil the Great, Adversus Eunomium, I, 6; PG 29, 521-4; II, 32, PG 29, 648; also Sesboüé, Basile de Césarée 182-188
[26] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 33.
[27] Basil the Great, Adversus Eunomium; I, 8; PG 29, 544A; also Sesboüé, Basile de Césarée192-198
[28] Andrew Louth, Denys the Areopagite, [London: Geoffrey Chapman Press 1989] 90
[29] John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year [Crestwood:St Vladimir”s Seminary Press 2000] 63.
[30] Maximos Aghiorgoussis, “Image as Sign (Shmei&on) of God: Knowledge of God through the Image according to St. Basil”, GOTR, vol. 21, 1 [Spring 1976] 19-54
[31] Basil the Great; Epistulae 234, 1; PG 32, 869; also Thomas Hopko, “The Trinity in Cappadocians”, in Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century, ed. Bernard McGinn, John Meyendorff, and Jean Leclercq [New York: Crossroad, 1989) 263-70 at 262; compare Phillip Scaff and Henry Wace, ed. St. Basil: Letters and Selected Works, NPNF, 2nd series, vol. VIII [Michigan: , W.M.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1968] 274-275
[32] Basil the Great, Epistulae 234, 1; PG 32, 869A; also C. Scouteris, “Never as Gods: Icons and their Veneration”, SO 6 [1984] p. 6-18
[33] Maximos Aghiorgoussis, “Christian Existentialism of the Greek Fathers: Persons, Essence, and Energies in God”, GOTR, vol. 23, 1 [Spring 1978] 15-42 (21)
[34] Aghiorgoussis, “Christian Existentialism” 21
[35] In a Letter to Amphilochios of Ikonium Basil the Great makes a synthesis of the two aspects, when he speaks of the many facets of knowledge of God. This knowledge is at the same time “understanding of our creator, comprehension of His marvellous things, observance of His commandments, and familiarity with Him”; Basil the Great, Epistulae 235, 3; PG 32, 873C
[36] Theodore, Refutation I, 12; PG 100, 344C
[37] Basil the Great, Adversus Eunomium II, 17; PG 36, 605B
[38] Clarence E. Rolt, Divine Names and Mystical Theology, [London: S.P.C.K 1957] 20-191
[39] Constantine Scouteris, “Platonic Elements in Pseudo-Dionysius Anti-Manichaean Ontology”, University of Athens, Department of Theology, Online publications in English, www.cc.uoa.gr/theology/html/english/pubs/doctrsec/scouteris/04/04.htm;
[40] Gregory the Theologian, Oratio 28; PG 36, 32C, 37A
[41] Oratio 28, 17; PG 36, 48C; also Paul Gallay, ed. Grégoire de Nazianze: Discours 27-31, [Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf 1978] 134-136
[42] Gregory the Theologian, Oratio 28, 4; PG 36, 32; also Gallay, Grégoire de Nazianze: Discours 27-31, 106-108.  The Timaeus passage is 28c: ton men oun poiêtên kai patera toude tou pantos eurein te ergon kai euronta eis panta adunaton legein; “Now, to find the maker and father of this universe is hard enough, and even if I succeeded, to declare him to everyone is impossible” (tr. Donald J. Zehl).
[43] Gregory the Theologian, Oratio 28, 4; PG 36, 31; also Gallay, Grégoire de Nazianze: Discours 27-31, 106-108
[44] Constantine Scouteris, “Platonic Elements in Pseudo-Dionysius Anti-Manichaean Ontology”, University of Athens, Department of Theology, Online publications in English, www.cc.uoa.gr/theology/html/english/pubs/doctrsec/scouteris/04/04.htm;
[45] Gregory the Theologian, Oratio 30, 17; PG 36, 127
[46] Gregory the Theologian; Panegyric on St. Basil 68; Oratio 31 (On the Holy Athanasius), 35; Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit 18; Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium, II; De Vita Moysis, 2, 176-78
[47] Bishop A. Hilarion, “Theology and Mysticism in St Gregory Nazianzen”, at http://en.hilarion.orthodoxia.org/6_5_1
[48] Nikephoros of Constantinople, Logos, 19; PG 100, 584
[49] Nikephoros of Constantinople, Logos 53; PG 100, 724
[50] Thomas Sadler, “Apophaticism and Early Christian Theology”, Phronema, no. 7 [1992] 13-23.
[51] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical theology of the Eastern Church, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co. Ltd. 1973) 9.
[52] Kalistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, ed. Timothy Were, [Penguin 1963] 63-64
[53] Macarius of Egypt, Homily 49; PG 34, 816B; see also Russell, “Partakers of the Divine nature”, 83.
[54] Aghiorgoussis, “Christian Existentialism of the Greek Fathers” 15-42
[55] Henry A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of The Church Fathers: Faith, Trinity, Incarnation, [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976] 347-406
[56] Constantine Scouteris, “Never as Gods: Icons and their Veneration”, SO 6 [1984] 6-18
[57] V. Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God, A.R. Mowbray & Co. Ltd, The Alden Press [Oxford 1975] 38
[58] Gregory of Nyssa,, De Vita Moses, PG 44, 297-430
[59] John R. Sachs, Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology”, Theological Studies, no. 54 [1993] 617-640; 633
[60] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, 157, ed. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, The Life of Moses, trans. [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978] 93.
[61] Deirdre Carabine, The Unknown God: Negative Theology in the Platonic tradition, Plato to Eriugena [Louvain : Peeters Press, 1955] 53.
[62] Jean Daniélou,  Platonisme et Théologie Mystique: Essai Sur la Doctrine Spirituelle de Saint Grégoire de Nysse [Paris: Editions Montaigne, 1953] 23
[63] William Harmless and Raymond Fitzgerald, “The Sapphire Light of the Mind: The Skemmata of Evagrius Ponticus”, Theological Studies, vol. 62 [Sept.2001] 498-529 at 507.
[64] Gregory of Nyssa, Homily on Beatitudes, PG 44, 1269C; see also Anthony Meredith, “The Concept of Mind in Gregory of Nyssa”, Studia Patristica XII [1975] 35-47 at 47.
[65] Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, 155-158, Malherbe and Ferguson, The Life of Moses, 93-94.
[66] Carabine, The Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition, 245
[67] Stuart Burns, “Divine Ecstasy in Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-Macarius: Flight and Intoxication”, Greek Orthodox Theological Review, vol. 44, 1-4 [Spring 1999] 309-327
[68] Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, 163
[69] Lossky, The Vision of God 74.
[70] Aghiorgoussis, “Image as Sign (Sēmeion) of God” 21.
[71] George Bebis, “In the Image of God: Studies in Scripture, Theology, and Community”, Greek Orthodox Theological Review, vol. 44, 1-4 [1999] 695-7.
[72] Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Othodox Spirituality, http://www.vic.com/~tscon/pelagia/htm/b15.en.orthodox_spirituality.01.htm
[73] Basil the Great, Adversus Eunomium, III, 5; PG 29, 665BC; also Sesboüé, Basile de Césarée, Contre Eunome 162-166.
[74] Aghiorgoussis, “Image as Sign (Sēmeion) of God” 25.
[75] Gregory the Theologian, Logos 43, 13; PG 36, 368.
[76] Idem: Logos, 40, 8; PG 36,368.
[77] John Chryssavgis, “The Origins of the Essence-Energies Distinction”; Phronema, no. 5 [1990] 15-31at 25.
[78] Sachs, “Apokatastasis in Patristic Theology” 631. Gregory the Theologian; Oratio 30, 6; PG 36, 112B, 7-9.
[79] Sachs, “Apokatastasis in Patristic Theology” 631.
[80] Paul Galley, Grégoire de Nazianze: Discours 32-37, Sources Chrétiennes 318 [Paris, 1985] 174-176; also Gregory the Theologian, Oratio 33, 9; PG 36; 225B, 12-17;
[81] Bishop A. Hilarion, “The Way Towards Deification,” at http://en.hilarion.orthodoxia.org/6_5_10
[82] Aghiorgoussis, “Christian Existentialism of the Greek Fathers”, 36
[83] Kenneth Parry, Depicting the Word: Byzantine Iconophile Thought of the Eight and Ninth Centuries [Laiden: E.J. Brill 1996]119
[84] Gregory the Theologian, Oratio 43, 2; PG 36, 495B
[85] Paul Galley, trans. Gregoire de Nazianze: Discours 38-40, Sources Chrétiennes 358, [Paris January 1990], idem: Discourse 40, 5, 1-21; SC 358,204-206.
[86] Paul Galley, trans. Gregoire de Nazianze: Discours 27-31, 250 [Paris 1978], idem: Discourse 31, 3, 11-22; SC 250,280.
[87] Basil the Great, On Psalm 44, 5; PG 39, 400C
[88] Gregory Palamas, Triads, I, 3, 43; quoted by Kalistos Ware, “God Hidden and Revealed: The Apophatic Way and the Essence-Energies Distinction”, ECR, vol. 7, 2 [1975] 132-145
[89] Maximus the Confessor, Ambiguorum Liber, 10; PG 91, 1168A.
[90] John of Shanghai, Homily on the Transfiguration, publish. Library of St. John Chrysostom [Bitola, 1926] 52-54
[91] Gregory the Theologian, Discourse 40, 5, 1-21; SC 358,204-206.
[92] Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Theology and Mysticism in St Gregory Nazianzen, http://en.hilarion.orthodoxia.org/6_5
[93] Lossky, Mystical Theology 69
[94] Maximus the Confessor, Capita Theologica et Oeconomica 200; Century II, 1; PG 90, 1125A.
[95] Gregory the Theologian, Oratio 31, 14; PG 36, 149.
[96] Basil the Great, Epistulae, 38, 8; PG 32, 340.
[97] Very soon after its establishment the Church faced the danger of heresies and misinterpretations of her faith and experience. One truth it had to defend and clarify was that the three persons of the Holy Trinity are of the same substance. It expressed this truth using the Greek term homoousios meaning “consubstantial” (St. Athanasius the Great, in particular stood steadfastly by the term homoousios, “of one essence,” used by the Nicene Creed).  St. Basil the Great, together with St. Gregory the Theologian and his brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, refined the meaning of the homousios to account more adequately for the distinct persons of the Father and the Son. In short, they defined the homoousios in light of the homoiousian tradition, safeguarding both the unity of the divine nature as well as the distinct persons of the Father and the Son.
[98] John of Damascus, Oration I, 9; PG 94, 1239
[99] Gregory the Theologian, Oratio 36,8; PG 36,141A; see also John of Damascus, Oration III, 18-19; PG 94, 1340AC.
[100] Gregory the Theologian, Oratio 31, 41; PG 36, 149A.
[101] Theodore the Studite, Refutation III, 7CD; PG 99, 432.
[102] John of Damascus, Oration III, 18; PG 94, 1338AC.
[103] Gregory the Theologian, Oratio 39, 9; PG 36, 144A; see also John of Damascus, DFO I, 2; PG 94, 792-3
[104] John of Damascus DFO I, 8; PG 94, 811B-815B.
[105] Basil the Great, De Spiritu Sancto, cap. 45, PG 32,149.
[106] Gregory the Theologian, Oratio 29, 16; PG 36, 96.
[107] Nikephoros of Constantinople, Logos 18, 19; PG 100, 580-81, Letter, PG 100, 181-4.
[108] Gregory the Theologian, Oratio 62; PG 36, 476B.
[109] Ps. Dionysius the Areopagite, De Divinis Nominibus II, 7, PG 3, 645B.
[110] John of Damascus, DFO I, 8-9; PG 94, 821C, 824B, 829B.
[111] Gregory the Theologian, Oratio 31, 9; PG 36, 146A.
[112] Council of Nicaea II, Session IV, quoted by Henry R. Percival, The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided , in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, ed. Phillip Schaff and Henry Wace, [Grand Rapids: MI, 1955] XIV, 541.
[113] Gregory the Theologian, Oratio 30, 9; PG 36, 141D-144A.
[114] Nikephoros, Logos, 18; PG 100, 581.

Article published in English on: 10-9-2010.

Last update: 10-9-2010.