Image, Symbol and Language
in Relation to the Holy Trinity
Professor Constantine Scouteris
The relation between fides and ratio has been a constantly recurring theme through-out the long ages of Christian thought. Already Paul makes a sharp distinction between "the wisdom of this age" and "the wisdom of God in mystery, the hidden wisdom". "The hidden wisdom" and "the wisdom of this age" constitute two diametrically opposing realities and ways. They represent two extreme possibilities of seeing the beginning and the end, the existence and the raison d' etre both of man and of the entire world.
"The hidden wisdom" is a wisdom taken captive by the power of God or, to put it differently, "the hidden wisdom" is God Himself "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" . "My speech", writes Paul to the Corinthians, "and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the spirit and of power that your faith should not be in the wisdom of man but in the power of God" . The wisdom "of this age" is a wisdom held captive by human reason. Again we may look at the point from a different perspective; the wisdom of this age is a wisdom absolutely alien to God. Those who base their existence on it are described as walking "in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God" . In the epistle of James, we find the same affirmation concerning human wisdom: "This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic".
The aim of this paper is not to discuss the relationship between the wisdom of God based on faith and the wisdom of this age based on human reason, but to demonstrate how and to what extent "the hidden wisdom" can be grasped by human beings. The question is how the unutterable can be uttered. Or to look at the question from another angle, do we have the possibility to bring to utterance what, in fact, is beyond human understanding? The question is not a new one; already Plato, made the statement that it is difficult to apprehend the Creator and the Father of this world but to express Him is indeed an impossibility . St. Gregory the Theologian, in referring to Plato without naming him, changes his statement and emphasizes that "to form an adequate concept of God is even more impossible than to express it when formed". The reason is because "that which may be apprehended may perhaps be expressed by language if not relatively well at any rate imperfectly".
For Orthodox patristic thought it is of primary and capital importance for any theological discussion to understand that the divine nature or essence is far beyond any knowledge and consequently all human linguistic expression is absolutely inadequate. The superessential nature cannot be a subject of human knowability. "God", points out St. John of Damascus, "is infinite and incomprehensible, and all that is comprehensible about Him is His infinity and incomprehensibility. All that we say about God kataphatically does not show forth His nature but the things that are related to His nature".
There is a remarkable consensus among the Greek fathers that what we know of God is not His ineffable nature, but His uncreated energies. We know God through His "manifestations", His "movement", His "power", His "outhrusts". "We know God", says St. Basil the Great, "by His energies, but we do not assert that we can approach His essence; His energies descend to us, although His nature remains unapproachable".
It is true and has been admitted on all hands that one of the fundamental point of patristic theological gnosiology is that the limited knowability of the divine energies and actions as well as the absolute incomprehensibility of God's nature do not form a kind of philosophical speculation but indicate an attitude, a personal experience of the revelation.
This personal experience of the revelation is understood in terms of participation in the uncreated glory of God. In other words, the attitude of which we are speaking is not a knowledge, in a narrow and speculative sense of the term, but a way toward deification. This attitude presupposes a radical change of mentality. The term used in Greek is metanoia which means both "change of mind" and "repentance". Bearing this in mind, we reach the conclusion that this attitude leads to a knowledge which is, in fact, a radical transformation of human wisdom, a wisdom which is called by Paul, "Foolishness of the message preached". It is paramount importance to understand that Christian theology, in order to be genuine, must be a destruction of "the wisdom of the wise" . It has to elevate itself from the level of "natural" ways of thinking to the level of contemplation of the mysteries revealed.
On this level theology, prayer and communion with God are not simply in close connection but are, in fact, interwoven. They constitute one and the same reality; a state where the human person is dominated and illuminated by God in such a way that his theological language is brought to its true essence. The unknown author of the fifth century in the prologue of his treatise on The Mystical Theology expresses this "captured by God" attitude: Supernal Triad, Deity above all essence, Knowledge and Goodness; Guide of Christians to Divine Wisdom; Direct our path to the ultimate summit of Thy mystical Lore, most incomprehensible, most luminous and most exalted, where the pure, absolute and immutable mysteries of theology are veiled in the dazzling obscurity of the secret Silence, outshining all brilliance with the intensity of their Darkness, and surcharging our blinded intellects with the utterly impalpable and invisible fairness of glories surpassing all beauty.
From all this it is not surprising, therefore, to observe that to speak about God presupposes the acceptance of both the priority of revelation as well as the faithfulness of those theologizing, not to the natural concepts of the human mind, but to an attitude which is based on love and communion. It is very significant that according to St. Gregory of Nyssa, knowledge of God and communion or participation in God are bound together. More than that, knowledge of God and communion with God are explicitly considered as identical. The process of love and communion leads to a personal experience of revelation enabling the human person to know God and to use true theological language, a language which will never be "a bastard form of speech" , working through speculations and purely human categories but through contemplation.
Christian theology in the final and ultimate analysis is not the reflections of an individual but arises within the ecclesial community. It is in the Church, this place of love and communion, that theology can attain its fulness and its true essence, given that the God of the Christians is not the impersonal supreme Being of the philosophers. It has been rightly said that the way of existence of the Church is an image and reflection of the way in which God exists . This means that each human person in the Church is an "image" of God in the sense that he exists in communion as God Himself exists in communion.
The fact that the way of existence of the Church is an image of the way of God's existence and that in the Church each human being is understood as an image of God is very significant and important for the understanding of theology itself. The Imago Dei ecclesiology and anthropology represent a solid basis upon which one can build an "image theology". In other words, one cannot see the symbolic and iconic character of Christian theology unless he understands the Church's mode of existence as an image of God's existence, that is to say, as a communion, and unless he sees the human person as an image of God's reality.
The human person as an image of God in the Church, which herself is also an image of God , becomes a "receptacle receiving goods", he partakes of God and as such has something akin to that in which he partakes. As an image of God, he is endowed with life, reason, wisdom and all the divine goods, so that by each of them, he is directed toward his archetype . This clearly means that his way of thinking and his way of speaking about God are not based on a subject-object principle, but, as we have already mentioned, on a completely new reality-relation, that of the ecclesial communion. It is evident that by entering into this communion one is not only a participant in the divine glory but is also united to the others who share this common knowledge and life. Thus, within the ecclesial body every human person shares through askesis a common and identical experience. Consequently he shares the same theology, he makes his own the same method; and thus he understands the iconic language and the symbols used by all persons who have experienced or are now experiencing the event of the ecclesial communion.
We have to emphasize her that ecclesial communion as the sole and adequate foundation of the common experience is the basis of the unity in truth. This means that the same faith, the understanding of that faith as well as the expression of that faith is only possible within the ecclesial body. The iconic and symbolic language which characterizes the Christian way of speaking about God has its own context and this is the context of the corpus Christi. Outside this reality icons and symbols appear simply as mythological descriptions. It is my personal conviction that the well known "Demythologizing program" of Bultmann and his school was ambiguous and, consequently, misleading for the simple reason that it was based on the principle of individualistic analysis outside of any living context and that images referring to God were evaluated in purely human terms and categories. It is not my intention here to enter into a dialogue with this school, but it seems to me very important for our investigation to make clear that, for any understanding of the iconic and symbolic language when speaking about God the individual must transcend his individuality and enter into the catholic consciousness of the Church. Otherwise, he can fall into a rationalization of the Church's iconic-symbolic language.
In this connection something must be added to clarify the great distinction between symbolic language and conceptual language. The point we have already made is that the only adequate language one can use when speaking about God is a symbolic and iconic language. This is because concepts about God presuppose that He can be reduced to an object of human investigation and analysis. In such a case God is understood as one reality among many others or, in the best case, as being above the others of this world. But if we accept the image of God given by Christian faith, that is to say, if we recognize that God is not limited to the finite world, then the conceptual language becomes an imperfect organ to express His reality. In fact abstract conceptions concerning God transform Christian theology into metaphysics. This means, in other words, that purely "conceptual theology" is a distortion of Christian theology that it operates as a rationalization of the Christian faith reducing God to an object of analysis.
By contrasting the symbolic and the conceptual language as we have done and by claiming that it is only through the symbolic language that we can properly speak about the Triune God, we do not intend either to overevaluate the part that symbols play in theology or to underevaluate and absolutely disconnect human reason in the theological process. We must make the point more precise by clarifying certain things.
The use of symbols, icons, parables and metaphors is fundamental to the scriptural approach to the divine revelation. It is the language of the prophets, the "teaching method" of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ and the foundation of the apostolic interpretation of Christ, His mission and the Church. Thus it is a divinely inspired given of any authentic approach to Christian theology.
By using symbols icons, etc. when speaking of God we simply recognize that we cannot give a purely rational explanation of God's existence, of His intra-Trinitarian life and of His relationship to the world. In other words, symbols and icons are not used in the purely theological discussion as a kind of trinitarian speculation; they do not play the role of theoretical statements and definitions. Thus they are not used to replace concepts. The rationalization of symbols is equally excluded from Orthodox theology as is excluded the absolutization of human reason. This means that symbols as well as human reason have their own limitations. On the other hand, symbols are not symbols in the narrow sense. They are not simply and only symbols. From an Orthodox patristic view point, symbols are directly connected with truth. Symbols and icons represent something which exists, something "real" and not something imaginary.
This was, in fact, the Orthodox response during the long iconoclastic controversy. St. John of Damascus makes a clear distinction between "shadow" and "image". Basing himself on the Epistle to the Hebrews (10:1), he comments that image represents a complete reality. Contrasted with the Law which is a "preliminary sketch for a picture" and a "shadow" of "the good things to come", the New Testament presents to us the very image of those thing . It is in Christ and in the Church of Christ that image represents truth. In the Church truth is in no way understood as intellectual construct, as a metaphysical concept, built upon a philosophical foundation, but as a reality in which to participate. The defenders of the veneration of icons during the iconoclastic controversy did not support a particular theological method among many others, neither did they argue for a theological comprehension, but they struggled to preserve the unique Christian tradition which understand theology as a vision, an event in which one participates manifested as an epiphany in the Church and through the methods set forth by the Church. The fathers of the second Council of Nicaea (787) were deeply aware that icons and symbols protect truth from any rationalization and objectification. They keep the way clear for a direct, existential (not individualistic), communal and participatory vision of truth.
Without further additions let us now briefly examine certain concrete examples of the symbolic and iconic language used in the New Testament and the Christian tradition and try to see their significance and function. It is selfevident that we shall limit our exposition to the symbols and icons related to the Trinitarian mystery.
Studying the New Testament data as well as those of Christian history, we find that symbols and images used to express in some way the reality of the Triune God are taken from two sources. The one is the socalled "natural" world and the other is the human state or world . We have to observe that using symbols and images from the natural world, the risk of rationalization is to a great extent limited, not impossible, but certainly limited. There is a kind of distance between man and the natural world so that man can easily see the limits and functions of symbols and images based on its realities. When, for example, we speak of God as "Light" (Lk. 2:32‹Jn 1:79‹etc.), the symbolism is very expressive so that no one would identify light and God. The same is true when we speak of God as "fountain" (Rev. 21:6). Again the symbolism is evident, and no one would think to reverse the statement and say that the fountain is God. But when we use symbols and images derived from the human experience, the danger of rationalization is always present, given that man is existentially involved in the human and historic situation. Thus, often he confuses or identifies symbols and images related to God with symbols and images related to his own human life. This was, for example, the case of Arius, who understood "generation" and "sonship" in human terms and consequently denied the eternity of the Logos of God and held that He is, therefore, not true God but, rather, a creature whom the Father formed out of nothingness as the beginning and agent of His creation.
But it would be a serious misunderstanding to place the image of generation and sonship within the anthropomorphic context and identify the eternal generation and sonship of the Logos of God and with human generation and sonship. It is beyond doubt that in Christian theology the categories of fatherhood, generation and sonship have a unique and peculiar significance. This means that the images of fatherhood and sonship when related to the Triune God are not derived from the human experience. In other words, human and divine fatherhood are two absolutely incomparable realities. Likewise, the sonship of the Logos of God cannot be understood and interpreted in human terms. The "sonship of our Savior", writes Alexander of Alexandria, "has absolutely no communion with the sonship of human persons".
All this means that in Christian theology the divine fatherhood and sonship transcend human fatherhood and sonship. Any attempt to limit our understanding of the fatherhood or sonship of God to human models leads to an anthropomorphic understanding of God and, consequently, to a theology confined within the narrow framework of human reason. In such a case there is no room for a theology of faith or for a theology based on the common ecclesial experience and vision.