An Orthodox Theory of Knowledge: Apophaticism, Asceticism, and Humility

Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.


This presentation discusses an Orthodox theory of knowledge, examining the spiritual use of apophaticism, asceticism, and humility to show that the only valid justification for the possibility of knowledge is for man to presuppose what has been revealed to the Orthodox Christian Church.[i] By practicing what is contained in this divine revelation man can unite himself to Christ and begin to heal the intellect to gain a true foundation for knowledge and obtain genuine understanding. What I mean by “the only valid justification for the possibility of knowledge and experience” is that certain conditions must be met (i.e., satisfied) in order for man acquire genuine knowledge and to justify any successful use of reason.  I argue that the only valid preconditions for the possibility of intelligibility, science, logic, experience, and morality is God. In other words, one must see human reason, not as autonomous, but grounded and completed in His divine revelation to mankind in the theoanthropos, the Lord Jesus Christ of the most Holy Trinity, who has revealed himself to us as the light of men[ii] and as the precondition for the possibility of any experience and knowledge. Furthermore, it is the Orthodox Church, by having received and faithfully preserved the fullness of God’s revelation to mankind, that grants the believer access to this transcendent reality in order to experience and know God in His divine energies by the appropriate spiritual use of apophaticism (the way of negation). This intellectual way of negation, an ascetic and spiritual exercise, provides one with a true understanding of God. Through divine revelation the intellect, illumined by grace, is radically transformed within an authentic noetic experience that is ultimately aimed at ontologically changing the knower to be conformed to the image of Christ. Gnosis, therefore, is for the sake of theosis, the Christian’s deification and union with God. Since St. Dionysius the Areopagite tells us that “Such a union of those divinized with the light that comes from on high takes place by virtue of a cessation of all intellectual activity,”[iii] we find through the apophatic ascetical practice that one ceases all such intellectual activity. It is through the still silence (hésuchia)[iv] of apophatic humility that the intellect is brought down into the heart (nous) and learns to listen to the voice of God so that now knowledge of Him is “given to us by faith, that is to say, by our participatory adherence in the presence of Him Who reveals Himself.”[v] It is here that we begin to experience and know God and partake in His divine and deifying gifts, His divine energies.[vi] Thus Faith is not a psychological attitude or a mere fidelity. The Orthodox Faith is an ontological relationship between man and God that serves as a necessary condition for any possibility of knowledge, which also includes knowing what God reveals of Himself to us both in nature[vii] and in the act of humble devotion and prayer. Furthermore, “This mystery of faith as personal encounter and ontological participation is the unique foundation of theological language, a language that apophasis opens to the silence of deification.”[viii] The apophatic ascent to the divine, as articulated in the Faith of the Fathers (the Faith that established the universe) is therefore an “internally objective relationship for which the catechumen prepares himself, and through which baptism and chrismation are conferred upon the faithful: gifts which restore and vivify the deepest nature of man.”[ix] This is the only valid justification for the possibility of knowledge and human experience, since not only does this unique presupposition ground and provide us with the necessary and sufficient justification for intelligibility, science, logic, experience, and morality, it restores the very nature of the human being.

 The Nature of Language

When talking about God, especially concerning His nature, human language appears entirely inadequate. Clement of Alexandria tells us “that human language is incapable of expressing anything essential about God.” He explains that human speech, “is by nature feeble, and incapable of uttering God.”[x] This follows along the same line of thought as Saint John of Damascus who declares that “it is clear that God exists, but what He is in essence and nature is beyond all understanding.”[xi] How then do we talk about that which is unknowable and beyond speech? How do we even name this unknowable, if by naming we express things as we conceive them in our understanding? Saint Gregory Palamas states:

The super-essential nature of God is not a subject for speech or thought or even contemplation, for it is far removed from all that exists and more than unknowable…. There is no name hereby it can be named, neither in this age nor in the age to come, nor word found in the soul and uttered by the tongue, nor contact whether sensible or intellectual, nor yet any image which may afford any knowledge of its subject, if this be not that perfect incomprehensibility which one acknowledges in denying all that can be named. None can properly name its essence or nature if he be truly seeking the truth that is above all truth.[xii]

Since no “theological term is adequate to the thought of the speaker, or the want of the questioner, because language is of natural necessity too weak to act in the service of the objects of thought,”[xiii] apophatic theology becomes necessary for those who desire to continue their quest for the divine. The Fathers, understanding that human thought and language are both inadequate and incapable of grasping the reality of God, use apophatic language to talk about God who is utterly transcendent.[xiv] Apophatic language is language that talks about something by virtue of what something is not. Apophatic theology is the process of negating all positive terms predicated of God, subsequently leading one towards a true knowledge of God. Furthermore, according to Alex Nesteruk, “Apophaticism can be understood as the inability of the reason (dianoia) to have any direct apprehension of God; at the same time, apophaticism means that any rational discursive definitions of God as truth are inadequate – that is, the rational concept of truth is not possible.”[xv] This leads us to consider the nature of knowledge itself.

The Nature of Knowledge

When we consider the existence of knowledge, facts, the validity of logic and arguments, conclusions derived from experience, etc., an important question arises for the reflective inquirer. How does one determine that human reason, unaided by any other powers, can actually accomplish what it sets out to do, that is, to know reality and what is true? In other words, within the sphere of human reason alone, can we ever determine whether knowledge exists? Since everyone presupposes something, a precommitment in using logic, reason, evidence, arguments, etc., there is no one who is presuppositionally neutral when it comes to factual questions and experience. Consequently, the use of reason, logic, evidence, arguments, etc. is not something proven by experience or reason. It is that by which one proceeds to prove everything else. What we find in such an analysis is that rather than proving facts, one necessarily begs the question. Ask one how they determine that our rational faculties can obtain knowledge, and one will inevitably appeal to their rational faculties to establish what they want to prove. Therefore, two questions immediately arise: (1) what are the necessary preconditions of knowledge and intelligibility that must be presupposed to ground and justify the use of reason, logic, evidence, arguments, etc., and (2) can human reason, when isolated solely within its own space of reason (autonomous epistemology), ever determine whether its processes are legitimate such that we can know anything at all without falling into the vicious circularity of epistemic bootstrapping?

What the history of philosophy and epistemology teaches us is that man isolated within his own sphere reason and committed to an autonomous epistemology, apart from theistic revelation, cannot justify the existence of knowledge or establish whether his rational processes are legitimate. Tragically, man in his pretended autonomy and rebellion against God is incapable of knowing “the nature of himself, logic, the world, universals, or how they all are, or could be, related.  In short he cannot attain a coherent theory of knowledge.  Consequently, no beliefs can be justified, and no beliefs can attain to the level of knowledge.”[xvi] As St. Justin Popovich explains: “There is an unbridgeable gulf between man and truth. Man is on one side of this gulf and can find no way of getting to the other, where transcendent Truth is to be found.”[xvii] Reason, unaided or helped in some way, is incapable of determining whether its processes are legitimate and whether it can know anything at all. Hence, human reason requires the help of the divine (i.e., supernatural assistance by grace) through faith, and it is this faith that allows the participant to receive knowledge as a gift from God. This knowledge both surpasses the limits of philosophy (human reason) and grounds (and justifies) the existence of knowledge arrived at by means of the human intellect. As St. Justin Popovich explains:

[T]he power of Truth, from the other side, responds to the powerlessness of man on this side. Transcendent Truth crosses the gulf, arrives on our side of it and reveals Itself— Himself—in the person of Christ, the God-man. In Him transcendent Truth becomes immanent in man. The God-man reveals the truth in and through Himself. He reveals it, not through thought or reason, but by the life that is His. He not only has the truth, He is Himself the Truth. In Him, Being and Truth are one. Therefore He, in His person, not only defines Truth but shows the way to it: he who abides in Him will know the Truth, and the Truth will make him free (cf. John 8:32) from sin, falsehood, and death.[xviii]

The solution to our epistemic predicament, which man’s autonomous reason cannot obtain within its own sphere of reasoning, is a truth that is both personal and obtained through living a life of faith in humility, by abiding in the only one who is in a position to know the Truth. By uniting one’s self to Christ in this way man can achieve true knowledge. For since in “the person of the God-man, God and man are indissolubly united,” [xix] the gulf between man and truth becomes bridged. Through the theoanthropos our intellects are “renewed, purified and sanctified… deepened and divinized and made capable of grasping the truths of life in the light of God-made-man. In the God-man, absolute Truth has in its entirety been given in a real and personal way.”[xx] And this is found in the life of faith.

The Nature of Faith

It is the Orthodox Christian faith – the faith which was once delivered unto the saints[xxi] – that will be addressed here, a faith uniquely distinct from what is articulated in other religions and other Christian faiths. Furthermore, “Faith is not a psychological attitude,” as Alex Nesteruk states, “it is a state of communion with God that provides ‘an ontological relationship between man and God.’[xxii][xxiii] Faith, in other words, is a way of being, a way of existing in communion with God that restores the nature of man in the deepest sense.

Let us now consider how faith relates to knowledge. Just as there is assumed knowledge particular to philosophy and science (assuming that knowledge can be sufficiently grounded and justified), there also exists knowledge that is particular to faith. Unlike the West’s project of Natural Theology, however, the Orthodox Church makes no separation between natural and supernatural revelation. For as Dimitrue Staniloae explains:

Natural revelation is known and understood fully in the light of supernatural revelation, or we might say that natural revelation is given and maintained by God continuously through his own divine act which is above nature. That is why Saint Maximos the Confessor does not posit an essential distinction between natural the revelation or biblical one. According to him, this latter is only the embodying of the former in historical persons and actions.[xxiv]

Therefore, there are those things which human reason can discover from nature only if grounded in the light of supernatural revelation, and then there are those hidden mysteries of God that require special divine revelation, without which they could not be known.[xxv] By the assistance of grace from God, faith is seen to be of a different order than the knowledge obtained from natural revelation through discursive reason, which relies on sense perception and experience, and is often assumed by those outside the faith to operate on the powers of the intellect alone.[xxvi]

In Orthodox theology, knowing (scientes) about God is done primarily through humility and ascetism. Theology is a science performed in humility – a study carried out in prayer. For as Evagrius states, “The one who has purity in prayer is true theologian, and the one who is true theologian has purity in prayer.”[xxvii] However, this sort of knowledge, located in the mystery of God that the human mind cannot obtain for itself, can only be received and embraced in faith by properly reorienting oneself in the correct relation to the living God. Recall Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai when he is told that no one can see God’s face and live. On the surface this is a puzzling passage, since it causes one to wonder how God, who is Life itself, could cause death upon seeing Him. However, St. Gregory of Nyssa explains this passage and the relationship between life and intelligibility in his Life of Moses:

Scripture does not indicate that this [to see God’s face] causes death of those who look, for how could the face of Life ever be the cause of death to those who approach it? On the contrary, the divine is by its nature life-giving. Yet the characteristic of the divine nature is to transcend all characteristics. Therefore, he who thinks God is something to be known does not have life, because he has turned from true Being (tou ontōs ontos) to what he considers by sense perception to have being. True Being is true Life. This Being is inaccessible to knowledge …. Thus, what Moses yearned for is satisfied by the very things which leave his desire unsatisfied.[xxviii]

According to St. Gregory, “to think that God is an object of knowledge is to turn away from true Being to a phantom of one’s own making.”[xxix] This is why, at least in part, the West’s scholastic project of natural theology as an attempt to seek God as an object of knowledge and prove His existence using philosophy leads the West to worship their idea (the phantom of their own making) of God rather than God Himself. Therefore, to properly know God is to radically reorientate oneself and follow Him who is Life. This is precisely what St. Gregory explains concerning why Moses is only to see the “back parts” of God, and not His face. For,

He who follows sees the back. So Moses, who eagerly seeks to behold God, is now taught how he can behold Him: to follow God wherever He might lead is to behold God …. For he who move to one side or brings himself to face his guide assumes another direction for himself than the one his guide shows him. Therefore, He [God] says to the one who is led, “My face is not to be seen,” that is, “Do not face your guide.” If he does so, his course will certainly be in the opposite direction, for good does not look good in the face, but follows it.[xxx]

We see from St. Gregory that Moses did not attempt to seek God as something to be known, but rather chose to become a follower of God, a follower of Christ. For to attempt to do otherwise is to face one’s guide rather than to follow, and the one who faces his guide “turns from true Being to what he considers by sense perception to have being,” a turn that surely leads to death.

Therefore, to reorientate oneself properly, one must first reject the idea that reason could ever be justified by its own reasonings. Next, one must begin to honestly investigate the conditions in which correct human reasoning and knowledge exist and operate. Here one discovers that reason bears a certain relation to faith. Human reason is found to exist and operate on a bedrock of faith. In other words, when human reason reflects upon itself, it finds something quite interesting and important. Reason finds that it takes faith in its own reasonableness, that its operations legitimately lead to truth and can obtain genuine knowledge of reality.[xxxi] This becomes an acknowledgment that not only is faith an essential component to reason, but that faith precedes reason as its foundation. For as Hebrews states, it is “Through faith, we comprehend (we think) how the ages have been produced.”[xxxii] Thus faith, as Lossky explains, “allows us to think, it gives us true intelligence.”[xxxiii] Faith is the foundation of reason and rational thinking, a foundation that reason cannot secure on its own. Thus when reason recognizes its own limits, we see the beginnings of apophatic theology.

Through the apophatic theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the process of negating all terms predicated of God’s essence (including apophatic predications of God’s essence), as the Fathers teach, one is led to a true knowledge of God. Apophatic theology, therefore, is intended to still and quiet the mind, ridding it of any thoughts, formulations or concepts. And as we shall soon see, the experience of God begins where the concepts end, and it is the experience of God that establishes a genuine, albeit different, type of knowing.[xxxiv]

Rather than approaching God with concepts as an object to be known, the way of negation (apophasis)[xxxv] offered by the Fathers is simply to bring the mind into submission to the heart (the spiritual organ that connects us to God). It is to humble the mind and acknowledge the impossibility of any concept or predication of God in His essence. Not only does the use of apophaticism expose the limit of what is thinkable, it also reveals that what limits it always transcends these limits.  What transcends the limit of human thinkability clearly cannot be a concept or an object of thought, since the notion of ‘concept’ entails an apprehension and determination of essence.  If God were an object of thought, He would remain within the realm of what is thinkable.  However, what is greater than can be thought can in no way be captured by thought.[xxxvi] For example, Saint John of Damascus refers to Dionysius, explaining that apophatic terms “do not show what He [God] is, but, rather, what He is not…. it is impossible to say what He is in His essence, so it is better to discuss Him by abstraction from all things whatsoever. For He does not belong to the number of beings, not because He does not exist, but because He transcends all beings and being itself. And, if knowledge respects beings, then that which transcends knowledge will certainly transcend essence, and conversely, what transcends essence will transcend knowledge.”[xxxvii] In short, God cannot be thought in concept (an object of thought) and is therefore truly unknowable. St. Gregory Palamas himself states, “God is not only beyond knowledge, but also beyond unknowing. His revelation itself is also truly a mystery of a most divine and an extraordinary kind, since the divine manifestations, even if symbolic, remain unknowable by reason of their transcendence.”[xxxviii] This is precisely what the apophatic articulations express concerning the reality of God.[xxxix]

The West, and their adherence to the doctrine of Absolute Divine Simplicity, even when using analogical, cataphatic, and negative language, nevertheless considers God as “a purely intellectual substance accessible to reason, possessing all perfections to an eminent degree, containing all ideas of all things, principle of every order and every reality…”[xl] This stands in stark contrast to the Eastern Orthodox faith, which acknowledges God as utterly transcendent, always greater than what could be thought, beyond every prediction – “the name above all names.” Vladimir Lossky argues:

To evoke transcendence seriously in a Christian perspective, one must go beyond not only all the notions of the created world, but also the notion of the first cause of this world. Divine causality in the creation supposes yet again a link with its effect. God must be conceived beyond philosophical transcendence; one must transcend the transcendence of this first causality which puts God in relation with the world.[xli]

St. Gregory Palamas himself emphasizes God being beyond both concept or any form of knowing by stating that “God is not only beyond knowledge, but also beyond unknowing. His revelation itself is also truly a mystery of a most divine and an extraordinary kind, since the divine manifestations, even if symbolic, remain unknowable by reason of their transcendence.”[xlii] Therefore, we are left in utter silence, since we can have no knowledge of God through human reason. For as Augustine explains, “one cannot even say that God is ineffable, since by saying this we say something and raise a ‘battle of words’ which must be overcome by silence. ”[xliii] Hence, apophatic theology begins to spiritually prepare the mind for hesychasm, to know God – not as an object of thought – but known as experienced by following God and participating in His eternal actions – His divine uncreated activities (ἐνεργείας).

Here the Orthodox Christian faith plays its crucial role, not as contradicting reason, but by completing what reason could not accomplish.  Faith requires love and love “goes further than understanding, because love can desire that which remains unknown, while knowledge cannot reach that which remains unknown or unknowable.”[xliv] Not only does faith grant the devotee access to the radically transcendent God (not in His essence, but in His energies), faith also grounds reason itself, since intelligence proceeds from faith. As was previously mentioned, this is seen from the fact that rationality must “take faith” in the permanence of its own rationality.[xlv] Human reason can never justify the permanence of its own rationality. It cannot prove that its methods are reliable and that its processes lead to knowledge without falling into a vicious circle – “epistemic bootstrapping” – as philosophers call it. Whatever arguments human reason uses to demonstrate the validity of reason, they will always be using exactly what is in question – human reason. Using human reason to demonstrate the validity of human reason is clearly question begging. This is to fall into epistemic circularity, invalidating its justification for knowledge. How then does man find knowledge and truth when he cannot even determine whether such a thing even exists? He cannot use reason or appeal to anything he “knows” to show that knowledge exists, since he has not established this to be true. Knowledge and reason are therefore suspect. As Clement of Alexandria points out, “If anyone should suggest that scientific knowledge is provable by the help of reason, he must realize that the first principles are not able to be proved…. By faith alone is it possible to arrive at the first principle of the universe.”[xlvi] Therefore, standing alone with the uncertainty of his reason man is incapable of discovering whether knowledge exists. Man needs help from one who is in a position to know, from one who is not in the same epistemic quagmire, from one who is capable of delivering truth to those who have fallen from the grace to know. Man requires divine assistance. He requires divine revelation in order to deliver truth and knowledge to what his intellect cannot obtain on its own. And the gift that God has given man to obtain this truth is faith. This is seen from the fact that for human reason to even proceed investigating the world, reason must take faith in its abilities to acquire knowledge.[xlvii]

Just as Kant in the transcendental deduction of the Critique of Pure Reason sought to find the transcendental conditions for the possibility of knowledge, so too does the human mind seek to find the grounds for its “knowing.” As Kant further articulates, this is the mind’s attempt to establish a conclusion, not by means of deduction, but rather to arrive at a conclusion transcendentally,[xlviii] that is, the process whereby one shows that if the conclusion is not true, knowledge itself would not be possible.  In our present case, what the mind finds when reflecting upon itself is the following conclusion: God is the precondition (the ground) for the possibility of intelligibility and correct reasoning (i.e., knowledge).[xlix] And it is faith, as Vladimir Lossky explains, that “allows us to think,” since faith “gives us true intelligence.”[l] For it is “Through faith, we comprehend (we think) how the ages have been produced.” (Hebrews 11:3) This is exactly what St. Clement of Alexandria means when he “declares that knowledge is possible only because of faith and that faith is a condition of knowledge of any kind.”[li]

Saint Augustine’s notion of man’s “restless heart,” the dynamic movement of the human spirit yearning for the infinite in every act of knowledge sheds much light upon the present inquiry. The human desire for knowledge, which Aristotle speaks of when he states, “all men by nature desire to know,” is connected and intimately related to man’s longing for God. Hence, man’s desire for knowledge always points to the existence of God. God is the necessary condition for the possibility of any and all knowledge. Augustine teaches that the divine light (what we call “the uncreated light”) that shines upon the human mind from outside is the condition in which all objects are known.[lii] Further, St. John the Apostle declares of Christ that “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.”[liii]  It has been stated that intelligence proceeds from faith, that reason takes faith in its own permanence.[liv] However, the crucial part of this analysis is not that the intellect takes faith in its abilities to legitimately acquire knowledge, but what it takes faith in. If human reason takes faith in itself, then clearly one cannot be justified in knowing that the mind can obtain genuine knowledge. Human reason must believe and presuppose the only thing that can serve as the grounds for the possibility of its knowing and attaining knowledge. There is, however, only one candidate for satisfying such conditions –Christ, the eternal Logos. Christ, the light of men who illumines the minds of all human beings becomes the unique presuppositional justification that makes true belief to be knowledge (true justified belief).[lv]  As Augustine explains, “The mind needs to be enlightened by light from outside itself, so that it can participate in truth, because it is not itself the nature of truth. You will light my lamp, Lord.”[lvi] Christ is the light, the Word, and the nature of Truth.

The Lord God who is omniscient and not contingent upon anything is the one who clearly is in a position to know. However, how are we to be helped and delivered from our ignorance and when the “Godhead, then, is ineffable and incomprehensible”[lvii]? Saint John of Damascus explains that “God has not gone so far as to leave us in complete ignorance,”[lviii] nor has He left us in a position such that we cannot obtain the ground and conditions for the possibility of our knowledge. We can know Him and know the world. God has sent His son Jesus Christ who is both the teacher of truth and Truth itself. For as Augustine declares: “None other than you is teacher of the truth, wherever and from whatever source it is manifest.”[lix]  Since Christ is the Divine Logos and the image of God, “the incarnate Christ is able to act as a mediator between God and humankind, and provides the human being with knowledge”[lx] both of God and about the reality in which he encounters.[lxi] The Orthodox Christian, recognizing the inadequacy of human knowledge, nevertheless finds that he has been given a path to knowledge through faith in Christ who opens up the possibility of knowing.[lxii] He is the means whereby the human being comes to know God. Clement states: “The face of God is the Word by who God is manifested and made known.”[lxiii] This type of knowledge is obtained not by the power of the intellect through concepts and words, but is received often in silence, through humility and by the power and grace of God. Here the faithful devotee is lifted up to experience the truths (His divine energies) that radiate from His holiness as rays of light. St. Matthew speaks about man’s relationship with God, stating: “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”[lxiv] This solution is a gift from God when the mutual love between Creator and His creation is established. The Creator’s gift of faith to his creation can be seen as the “crown of knowledge.” Again, faith is not a mere fidelity or a psychological mode. It is, as Thunberg describes, “true knowledge, the principles of which are beyond rational demonstration; for faith makes real for us things beyond intellect and reason…”[lxv]­ Faith completes what reason could not accomplish on its own.


Thus to conclude, the only valid justification for the possibility of knowledge and experience is for reason to bring itself down into the heart and locate itself within faith, acknowledging that it cannot autonomously satisfy the conditions for the possibility of knowledge nor can it transcend the limits of its own thinkability and reach a knowledge of God. Reason must recognize the condition it is in and humble[lxvi] itself in order that may be exalted to experience a true knowledge of God’s energies inasmuch as He grants such knowledge to be seen through faith by divine revelation. For as Clement explains, “If a person has faith in the divine Scriptures and a firm judgment, then he receives as an irrefutable demonstration the voice of the God who has granted him those Scriptures. The faith no longer requires the confirmation of demonstration. ‘Blessed are those who without seeing have believed.’”[lxvii] This intellectual humility is the metanoia and periagoge, the reorientation required for the mind to turn away from its hubris (the knowledge that puffs up) and return to the grace and love of God. The apophatic acknowledgements that declare God as incomprehensible and greater than can be thought nevertheless entreats us, as Clement explains, “to turn around,” and teaches “us to follow the God who has given us the commandments.”[lxviii] They gently remind us, he goes on to say, “to search for God, and as far as possible to make an effort to know him. This is the highest form of study, the supreme revelation, real knowledge, not to be overthrown by reason. This has to be the only knowledge known to wisdom, and it is never separated from the practice of righteousness.”[lxix]

The act of apophaticism (apophasis) as it relates to approaching God is itself an act of humility. Alex Nesteruk expresses the same idea when he states that “Apophaticism becomes a synonym of humility…”[lxx] For when the mind accepts and contemplates what the Orthodox faith has already been given to think about, namely, that God is incomprehensible, utterly transcendent, “above both space, and time, and name, and conception,”[lxxi] “invisible,”[lxxii]  “incapable of being circumscribed,”[lxxiii] always greater and better than can be thought, then reason humbles itself. Consequently, when reason humbles itself, then God exalts the person to see what reason cannot. Clement describes this as the first movement of apophatic theology, “the mode of purification by confession.”[lxxiv] This is when “the human being confesses his inability to progress towards the goal of his epistemological quest, namely, the transcendent God, by means of his own powers and acknowledges the absolute primacy of this goal.”[lxxv] This is the true theology that the Fathers speak about, a study of God that brings the human being into an intimate relationship with the hidden God through Jesus Christ. For the “ultimate goal of the knowledge or ‘gnosis’ imparted by and through Christ is to bring about the most intimate possible relationship with God.”[lxxvi] By means of the knowledge “imparted to him by Christ, the true believer… is able to gain glimpses of the Divine Mystery and to progress as far as is possible in this life towards knowledge of the Divine.”[lxxvii] For the Orthodox Christian this is the process of theosis. Hence, apophatic theology is not only correct reorientation, it becomes a way a being. Apophasis leads to a type of knowledge that transforms the person into a new being where the image of Christ is impressed upon the believer and devotee so that “there is now a third divine image, made as far as possible like the Second Cause, the Essential Life, through which we live the true life.”[lxxviii] This third divine image that Clement speaks of is the knower himself who is deified through Christ’s salvific work. The apophatic ascent to the divine is, therefore, the only possible justification for intelligibility, science, logic, experience, morality, etc. For by admitting that God is beyond comprehension and greater than can be thought, the mind discovers that human reason and philosophy can only be justified when it acknowledges its ground (the condition for the possibility of all knowledge) and understands that it cannot think that which surpasses the limits of human thought. Thus the apophatic acknowledgement is able to locate within Faith the only criteria that satisfies the conditions for the science of human reasoning (philosophy) and allows us to legitimately acquire genuine knowledge. This is exactly the same point Lossky makes when he declares:

One must therefore start from faith – and that is the only way to save philosophy. Philosophy itself, on its summits, demands the renunciation of speculation; questing, it attains the moment of supreme ignorance; a negative way where the failure of human thought is acknowledged. Here, philosophy ends in a mysticism and dies in becoming the experience of an Unknown God Who can no longer even be named.[lxxix]

It is Christ who restores the failure of human thought, thought failing to accomplish what it sets out to do, namely, provide us with genuine knowledge. Since Christ is the perfect measure of all things, it is He who “breaks the closed systems in which philosophers imprison and denature the reflection of the living God in human thought – but He also brings His accomplishment to the intuitive attention which the philosophers have devoted to this reflection….”[lxxx] It is Christ who offers us this gift of knowledge when we humbly approach Him in faith through the act of apophasis by believing what the intellect cannot understand and comprehend. As Clement of Alexandria  declares, “I believe so that I am may understand (credo ut intelligiam).



[i] “God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” (Ps 117:27,26)

[ii] In the Gospel of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, we are told that Christ is the light of men and the one who makes knowledge (i.e., “light”) possible in mankind.

[iii] Saint Dionysius, On Divine Names., I.5 PG III, 593C.

[iv]Hésuchia, ἡσυχία, is the Greek word for quietness, stillness, silence. Hesychasm is a type of asceticism in Eastern Orthodoxy that stresses silence, since purity in prayer implies the state of silence. It is a mystical tradition of prayer, whereby one draws the nous (mind) into the heart, retreats inward by ceasing to engage with the senses in order to obtain an experiential knowledge of God, the “peace of God that surpasses all understanding.” (Philippians 4:7) This practice, incorporated by the Desert Fathers, traces back to Christ’s own words, when He says, “when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray.” (Matthew 6:6) The hesychasts are the ‘silents’: encounter and gift, gnosis is placed beyond the noux; it demands the surmounting and arrest of thought.” (Lossky, Orthodox Theology, 13) When engages in silent contemplation, one opens thought to a reality that lies beyond thought itself. This type of thought is a new mode of thinking such that “thought does not include, does not seize, but finds itself included and seized, mortified and vivified by contemplative faith.” (Lossky, Orthodox Theology, 14)

[v] Vladimir Lossky, Orthodox Theology, 16.

[vi] “For he who partakes of the divine and deifying Gifts is not alone, but with you, my Christ, who came fro the thrice-radiant Light which enlightens the world.” (Saint Simeon the New Theologian)

[vii] Natural Revelation: “The Orthodox Church makes no separation between natural and supernatural revelation. Natural revelation is known and understood fully in the light of supernatural revelation, or we might say that natural revelation is given and maintained by God continuously through his own divine act which is above nature.” (Dumitru Staniloae, The Experience of God, 1)

[viii] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 25.

[ix]Vladimir Lossky, Orthodox Theology, 16.

[x]Clement of Alexandria, Stromata vi. 166. I (ii. 404).

[xi]Saint John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Bk. 1, Ch.4s

[xii]St. Gregory Palamas, “Capita 150 physics, theologica, moralia et practica, cap. 78,” P.G., CL, 1176 B.

[xiii]St. Basil the Great, Letters 7 [ET: 115].

[xiv]Saint John of Damascus tells us that “one who would speak or hear about God should know… not all things are inexpressible and not all are capable of expression, and neither are all things unknowable nor are they all knowable. That which can be known is one thing, whereas that which can be said is another, just as it is one thing to speak and another to know.” (An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Bk. 1, Ch.4)

[xv] Nesteruk, Light from the East, 53.

[xvi] Russell M. Manion, “The Contingency of Knowledge and Revelatory Theism.”

[xvii] St. Justin Popovich, “The Theory of Knowledge of St. Isaac the Syrian,” 68.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Jude 1:3

[xxii] St. Basil the Great, Hexaemeron, 5.1 [ET: 76].

[xxiii]Alex Nesteruk, Light from the East, 46.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] For it is written, “Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe… God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:20-27)

[xxvi] “By attempting to explain man by man, philosophy achieves a bizarre result: it presents a mirror image of a mirror image. In the last analysis, such philosophy, whatever its path, is centered on matter and on man. And one thing follows from all this: the impossibility of any true knowledge of man or of the world. This result compels the philosophical spirit of man to make conjectures that transcend both man and matter.” (St. Justin Popovich, “The Theory of Knowledge of Saint Isaac the Syrian,” 67)

[xxvii]Evagrius Pontincus, On Prayer, 61.Evangrius Pontincus goes on to say that “Prayer is communion of the intellect with God.” Alex Nesteruk emphasizes the value of Evangrius’ point, stating that the subject of the theologian’s inquiry “is accessible only through personal participation in this truth through prayer – prayer that forms the living experience of truth, and it is only through prayer that the experience of truth is possible.” Nesteruk comments further, explaining that here “Evagrius develops the ideas of his teacher St. Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzus) that the necessary condition to be a theologian is to live an ascetic life, to be virtuous and go through moral purification.” (Nesteruk, Light from the East, 41)

[xxviii] St. Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, 234-235.

[xxix] David Bradshaw, “The Divine Glory and the Divine Energies,” 11.

[xxx] St. Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, 251-253

[xxxi]“Certainly, faith is present in all walks, in all science of the human spirit, but as supposition, as working hypothesis here, the moment of faith remains burdened with an uncertainty which proof alone could clear. Christian faith, on the contrary, is adherence to a presence which confers certitude, in such a way that certitude, here, is first.” (Lossky, Orthodox Theology, 16)

[xxxii] Hebrews 11:3.

[xxxiii] Vladimir Lossky, Orthodox Theology, 16.

[xxxiv] Lossky explains that the “negative way of the knowledge of God is an ascendant undertaking of the mind that progressively eliminates all positive attributes of the object it wishes to attain, in order to culminate finally in a kind of apprehension by supreme ignorance of Him who cannot be an object of knowledge… it is an intellectual experience of the mind’s failure when confronted with something beyond the conceivable…it wishes to surpass the limits of understanding, imparting to the ignorance of what God is in His inaccessible nature the value of a mystical knowledge superior to the intellect, upernoun.” (Vladimir Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God, 13)

[xxxv] In Latin the way of negation is via negativa, but it is the same thing as apophasis, talking about God in terms of what He is not.

[xxxvi] It must be distinguished in what way in which God is argued and said to be unthinkable. Clearly, God can be thought ‘about’ insofar as He is the intentional object of thought. However, the Eastern Church Fathers, distinguishing between God’s essence and uncreated energies, maintain that God’s essence (ousia) cannot be thought, since what God is in His essence is unthinkable and beyond all thinkable concepts. What is thought when positive predicates are attributed to God are His uncreated energies. Therefore, when we say that God is love, omnipotent, just, merciful, etc., we are speaking about His uncreated energies and not His essence. Furthermore, there is a difference in proclaiming that God’s essence is unthinkable because it is beyond the reach of cognition, and that something is unthinkable due to an inherent incoherence of the subject matter (e.g., trying to think about “a square circle” or “a married bachelor.”

[xxxvii]St. John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Bk. I, Ch. 4, 4.

[xxxviii]St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads, I. iii. 4.

[xxxix] It should be noted that apophasis is directed at a mystical knowledge imparted to us by God through acknowledging the failure of the human mind to obtain God as a thinkable concept and, therefore, it is by no means agnosticism simply masquerading as faith, which would constitute as some form of fideism.

[xl] Vladimir Lossky, Orthodox Theology, 21.

[xli] Ibid., 21-22.

[xlii] Saint Gregory Palamas, The Triads, I. iii. 4.

[xliii] Vladimir Lossky, Orthodox Theology, 26.

[xliv] Jean Luc Marion, “Is the Argument Ontological?”, 96.

[xlv] “Intelligence proceeds from faith, because rationality consists mainly in recognizing in faith the permanent and radical condition of the possibility of thinking; in that sense, intelligence needs not merely faith, but explicitly specified faith – belief in exactly this: that reason has to believe in order to achieve understanding.” (Marion, “Is the Ontological Argument Ontological?”, 86)

[xlvi] Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, Bk. II, Ch. 4, 13.4-14.1

[xlvii] This is also expressed in Clement of Alexandria’s “credo ut intelligiam.”

[xlviii] A transcendental argument is, according to Kant, “one that proves a conclusion by showing that unless it were true, experience itself would be impossible.” (Simon Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 380)

[xlix] “Autonomous man can use reason and his senses while denying belief in God, and can thereby do math, science, and manipulate the world around him.  But, he can give no account of reason and senses apart from God.  Therefore, just as reason presupposes the actuality of logic whether or not one believes in it, so, reason presupposes the actuality of God… This being the case, all arguments are arguments for the existence of God and no argument against the existence of God can be made.  For in the final analysis, an argument against the existence of God is like an argument against arguments… God is proven, not as the conclusion of rational or empirical theistic arguments, but as the very ground of argument itself.  It is with the surrender to God’s view of Himself, the world, and ourselves that one can articulate a coherent theory of knowledge. God’s revelation is not validated by some autonomous epistemology.  Rather, our epistemology is validated by the revelation of God and the story contained in that revelation. God’s revelation is self-authenticating, because, by it, everything else is authenticated.” (Russell M. Manion, “The Contingency of Knowledge and Revelatory Theism.”)

[l] Vladimir Lossky, Orthodox Theology, 16.

[li] Alex Nesteruk, Light from the East, 18.

[lii]Saint Augustine, Confessions, Bk. 12, Ch. 25.

[liii] John 1:4.

[liv] Clement of Alexandria states:  “Aristotle says that faith is a judgment derived from scientific knowledge affirming a thing to be true. So faith is more authoritative than science. Faith is the criterion of scientific knowledge.” (Stromateis, Bk. II, Ch. 4, 14.5)

[lv]Saint Augustine in the Confessions states: “When I speak the truth, I do not teach someone who sees these truths. For he is taught not by my words but by the things themselves made manifest within when God discloses them.”  (Confessions, Bk.12, Ch. 40)

[lvi]Saint Augustine, Confessions, IV.xv.25.

[lvii] Saint John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Bk. 1, Ch.4.

[lviii]Saint John of Damascus, The Orthodox Faith, Bk. I, Ch. 1, 1.

[lix]Saint Augustine, The Confessions, X, xl.65.

[lx] David Law, Kierkegaard as Negative Theologian, 11.

[lxi]Saint Augustine goes on to state, “You hear nothing true from me which you have not first told me.”  (Confessions, Bk. X., ii.2).

[lxii] “Then I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and loose its seals?’ And no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll, or to look at it… And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne… stood a Lamb as though it had been slain… He came and took the scroll out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne.” (Rev. 5:2-7)

[lxiii] Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, v. 73. 2 (ii. 265).

[lxiv] Matthew 23:12

[lxv]Lars Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator, 397.

[lxvi] Clement declares that “faith is more authoritative than science [reason]. Faith is the criterion of scientific knowledge.” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, Bk. II, Ch. 4, 14.5)

[lxvii] Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, Bk. II, 9.6.

[lxviii] Ibid., Bk. II, Ch. 10, 46.4.

[lxix] Ibid.

[lxx] Alex Nesteruk, Light from the East, 9.

[lxxi] Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, v. 71. 5 (ii. 264)

[lxxii] Ibid., v. 74. 4 (ii. 265)

[lxxiii] Ibid.

[lxxiv] Ibid., v. 71. 2 (ii. 263).

[lxxv] David Law, Kierkegaard as Negative Theologian, 10.

[lxxvi] David Law, Kierkegaard as Negative Theologian, 12.

[lxxvii] Ibid.

[lxxviii] Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, vii. 16. 6 (ii. 417).

[lxxix] Vladimir Lossky, Orthodox Theology, 21.

[lxxx] Ibid., 20.

About the author

Fr. Deacon Ananias Sorem, PhD is CEO, Founder, and President of Patristic Faith. Father is an Orthodox apologist and Professor of Philosophy at Fullerton College and Carroll College. He has a BA in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College, together with an MA (Honors) and PhD in Philosophy (Epistemology; Philosophy of Science; Philosophy of Mind) from University College Dublin. His current academic work focuses on philosophical theology, epistemology, and the philosophy of science. Father is the author of several articles and peer-reviewed papers, including: “Searle, Materialism, and the Mind-Body Problem,” “Gnostic Scientism and Technocratic Totalitarianism,” “An Orthodox Approach to the Dangers of Modernity and Technology,” and “An Orthodox Theory of Knowledge: The Epistemological and Apologetic Methods of the Church Fathers.” He is also known for his YouTube channel, the Norwegian Nous, where he provides content on theology, apologetics, logic, and philosophy.

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