Dogma and Mystery

Venerable Stephen the Aboot of Makhrishche, Vologda

Venerable Stephen the Aboot of Makhrishche, Vologda

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Greece

It is essential to make a distinction between dogma and mystery. The mystery of the Holy Trinity is experienced, to the extent that this is possible, by the glorified human being and is different from the dogma, which is the rational formulation concerning the mystery of the Holy Trinity or the revelation. This distinction is fundamental to Orthodox theology: "God is always a mystery. The mystery of the Holy Trinity must be separated from the dogma of the Holy Trinity. The dogma is not the same as the mystery.

This means that the dogma can be understood rationally, but not the mystery. There is confusion on this issue among some contemporary theologians and a serious problem arises. For instance, when we speak about the Holy Trinity, we are referring to the dogma, the terminology concerning the Holy Trinity, as formulated by the holy Fathers of the Church (essence, hypostases, hypostatic, property, and so on) and not to the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

There is so much confusion in recent theology, under the influence of Russian theology, that anyone would think that an expert on dogmatics or a theologian of the Orthodox Church is someone who reflects deeply and immerses himself n the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and attempts to put it into words. The Patristic tradition has absolutely no connection with this sort of perception of theology.

The names and concepts that a God-seeing Saint formulates when necessary are one thing and the experience that he has acquired of this reality is another. The mystery remains a mystery. We do not put the mystery into words, but the dogma about the mystery of the Holy Trinity; not about the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

The same can be said of the distinction between Holy Scripture and God. Holy Scripture consists of the words and concepts expressing the experience of the mystery of God, and these words and concepts are not identical to God. God is not identified with the words and concepts. Identifying God with them leads to idolatry.

For this reason you must have a firm grasp of this distinction between the mystery and the dogma. They are not the same thing, because theology; dogma and noetic prayer will be abolished: they are temporary in character. It is idolatry for us to identify God with words and concepts about Him. From this point of view, you can take the existentialism of certain (at least in my opinion) pseudo-theologians and throw them all into the waste paper bin. Because the only correct existential philosophy from the Orthodox point of view is the atheistic one and not the theistic.

To say that we understand dogmas is foolishness. No one understands the dogma of the Holy Trinity, because the dogma of the Holy Trinity is not intended to be understood. Anyone who gives the impression that he understands the dogma of the Holy Trinity is a fraud. This is the worst deception. It is possible to understand the purpose of the dogma, its origin and its history. But it is impossible for someone to understand the dogma itself, because understanding the dogma means understanding the mystery. The dogma and the mystery are different things. They must never be confused.

Dogma exists as man's guide. It is a signpost that shows him where he ought to be going. When, however, he reaches his destination, it is done away with. For that reason, dogma is a guide for those who are passing through purification, and carries on being a guide for those who continue in illumination. It is a guide and nothing more. But those who are at the stage of illumination know that one day dogma will be abolished. Dogma ceases to exist. Noetic prayer itself stops. Although the Spirit of God prays within man with psalms, hymns or phrases--the Spirit Himself prays with human words within man--when man attains to glorification even this noetic prayer of the Holy Spirit ceases.

This is what the Apostle Paul says: "When that which is perfect comes, then prophecies will cease," in other words, theology will come to an end; "tongues will cease," that is, the various kinds of noetic prayer will stop; and "knowledge will vanish away," (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:8-13), in other words, what are nowadays called dogmas and theology. All these things come to an end in glorification. Certainly, when someone returns from glorification, when he ceases to have the vision of God, he continues praying once again with dogmas and the Spirit again prays within him as before. In this life the state of glorification is not permanent.

Neither the incarnation nor the dogma of the Holy Trinity can be understood. For that reason, even when God is revealed, then especially, He remains a mystery. The human nous cannot penetrate this mystery of uncreatedness and how what is uncreated took flesh and is united with human nature. We only know, because it is clear from the experience of Pentecost and the Transfiguration and from Saint John the Forerunner's experience of glorification at the Baptism, which is a revelation, the supreme revelation, of the Holy Trinity; that God remains a mystery.

As this is so, it is nonsensical for us to sit there asserting, like the Protestants and the Latins (Roman Catholics), that as time passes we have a deeper understanding of the dogmas of the Church. What does a deeper understanding mean, when, in the experience of glorification, of Pentecost, dogma has been abolished and the concepts and words that constitute dogmas have been done away with? The experience of glorification is not a dogma. It is higher than dogma. Dogma is the expression of the mystery but expressing the mystery is not the same as comprehending the mystery, because it is impossible to express God and even more impossible to conceive Him." (Source: Orthodox Heritage) [The article is taken from lectures of Father John Romanides]


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George