ENGLISH VERSION: On the Names of God. Letter by Metropolitan Rafael of TOC(R) to Metropolitan John of New York
Your Beatitude, Dear Vladyka!
It was with great joy that I received your brotherly epistle, filled with genuine concern for the correctness of our True-Orthodox Confession of Faith, the glory of the good name of our holy Church, and the preservation of our brotherly unity. I cordially thank you for your warm words and your prayerful wishes addressed to my humility, in which I see a pledge to strengthen our brotherly ties.
Indeed, throughout the entire history of our Church’s existence, its unity has been subjected to all kinds of trials, and we should be making maximum efforts to preserve it. Following the well-known commandment of the Apostle, I am convinced that this unity should not prevent private disagreement if, of course, they do not affect the very foundations of our faith, which are related to our hope of eternal salvation. In and of itself, theological polemics within the Church are not only possible, but even necessary – inasmuch as the Church, wandering on earth, is constantly faced with new challenges and temptations to which one is not immediately able to formulate a clear and acceptable answer for the whole Church.
In our opinion, the theological question raised in your epistle has already received a general ecclesial response, which is an integral part of the Sacred Tradition of our Church. This response, contained in Divine Revelation, has attained the fullness of its theological elucidation in the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas and other Greek and Russian Fathers, including those of relatively recent times. Please permit me, dear Vladyka, to devote the majority of this, my epistle to you, to a consideration of this question.
So as not to distract from the subject matter, I will not “get personal” and indulge in arguments about the merits and demerits of Bishop Gregory (Lourie); I will only note that you, through ignorance, are likely to have gathered information about him that does not come from the most reliable sources.
I grieve, dear Vladyka, that my position regarding the burning dogmatic question of the names of God has caused you anxiety and fear. What should we do? We cannot recognize name-glorifying as a heresy on the basis alone that it was condemned by the ecclesial authorities of Constantinople and Russia. For, first of all, we are far from having crypto-papist ideas about the inerrancy of ecclesial powers. Second, we are taught from Holy Tradition that God’s truth is only revealed through the agreement of the Holy Fathers. Third, from church history we know of many examples when not just patriarchs or synods, but entire councils of hierarchs from all over the world accepted erring and even heretical decisions, which happened to be opposed only by the voices of the Saints. But the truth in those dramatic moments of church history was with the Saints alone, and not with the actual ecclesial power and the majority of hierarchs.
We would like to be with the majority, but being with the truth is infinitely more important for us. Therefore we encourage you, dear Vladyko, to approach the question of name-glorifying with great care, sobriety, and reasoning. Who stood behind the definitions of the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Russian Synod? What did the name-glorifiers actually teach, and what did their opponents teach? Which of the conflicting teachings is in accordance with the teaching of the Holy Fathers, and which is opposed to it? How does name-glorifying correspond to the teaching of the great luminary of the Church, St. Gregory Palamas? We will try to the best of our limited abilities to reply briefly to these questions.
You refer to the ecclesial powers of Constantinople and Russia at the time of the controversy of the Name of God as if they were unconditional doctrinal authorities, whose decisions are not to be discussed. But we are not Latins, dear Vladyka, to count existent ecclesial authorities as infallible Popes. Is this what we are taught about the unconditional acceptance of any decisions of Patriarchs, Synods, or Councils by the Fathers of the Church: Maximus the Confessor, Theodore the Studite, Gregory Palamas, or Mark of Ephesus? If they had all accepted without reasoning and boldness that which the ecclesial authorities in their times had decided, then what would be left of our Orthodoxy?
Who were the bishops and their colleagues who condemned name-glorifying? Let us refrain from the judgment of the anti-name-glorifying definitions in the Church of Constantinople – better to let our Greek True Orthodox brethren do this (but let us remain with one question: Was it not the same theologians of the Chalki school that less than ten years after judging name-glorifying that prepared the heretical Encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (1920), which was adopted by the hierarchs of the Church of Constantinople and marked the beginning of its fall into the pan-heresy of ecumenism?) However, let us recall who were the authors of the Synodal resolution against name-glorifying in the Russian Church.
Are you aware that the Synod’s Decision of 1913 was written by Sergius (Stargorodsky), the future apostate from Orthodoxy and destroyer of the Russian Church, who had even earlier expressed in his books and articles many openly un-Orthodox judgments, tending to crypto-Nestorianism and Pelagianism in soteriology and the ecumenical heresy in ecclesiology? Was this man’s mind sufficiently pure from vain opinions and enlightened by the grace of the Holy Spirit to such an extent that he could judge infallibly about the greatness of God’s Name? On what did Sergius rely when writing this epistle? On the works of the Holy Fathers? On St. Gregory Palamas? No! On Sergius Troitsky, a semiliterate theologian and, as his later life proved, a man unprincipled in faith: first, as a member of ROCOR, he demonstrated in his articles the non-canonicity of Moscow Patriarchate headed by Sergius (Stragorodsky), denouncing its retreat from the purity of Orthodoxy; later, when in 1945 the Soviet troops were occupying Bulgaria, in which Troitsky was living at the moment, he became a member of the Moscow Patriarchate and began to write about the non-canonicity of ROCOR. Is this the mouth of the true Church? Of the other initiators of the struggle with name-glorifying, I will avoid verbosity by keeping silence. But I will simply note that the arguments used by current fighters with the divine power of the name of God – for example, a certain Vladimir Moss – are nothing more than a slavish repetition of the fabrications of S. V. Troitsky.
But the point is not even who was opposing name-glorifying, but what they were teaching. And they taught that the name of God is only a conventional symbol, a simple combination of sounds and letters, like any other human words – but not the power and grace of God, as we have long ago learned from Holy Scripture and the words of the Holy Fathers.
You, surely out of ignorance, call name-glorifying “the heresy of name-worshipping.” But does not Holy Scripture tell us that the name of Jesus is the name before which every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth and things under the earth (Philippians 2:10)? That it is above every name (Philippians 2:9), whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12)? Does Holy Scripture really command us to commit idolatry by teaching us to worship created conventional symbols, an empty set of letters and sounds? Could an empty set of sounds really save us? Hardly!
Our Russian saints have long taught that “at God’s Judgment we must give an account for every idle world; all the more frightful will be the account for every word of blasphemy against the foundations of the dogmas of Christian faith. The Teaching of God’s power in the name of Jesus has the full dignity of a foundational dogma, and belongs to the all-holy number and corpus of these dogmas” (St. Ignatius of the Caucasus, “Homily on the Jesus Prayer”). We many times meet in our Saints that the Name of God is “Divine; the force and effect of this name is Divine; they are omnipotent and salvific; they are beyond our understanding, inaccessible to us” (St. Ignatius of the Caucasus). “The saving Name of Jesus was reserved by the pre-eternal counsel of the Holy Trinity for our salvation, and on this day the righteous Joseph brings it forth like a priceless pearl from heaven's treasury, so that it may be used to redeem the whole human race” (St. Dimitry of Rostov, Homily on the Circumcision). That “the name of God is holy in and of itself, as well as glorious and all-glorious, and therefore demands praise from us.” That “the great name of God includes in itself His Divine properties, not communicated by creation (by nature), but belonging to Him alone” (St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, On Inner Christianity). That “His name is He – one God in three Persons, a simple Essence” (St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ).
So whom should we believe: Sts. Dimitry, Tikhon, Ignation, the Holy Righteous John of Kronstadt and many other Holy God-Pleasers glorified in Russia, who taught that the name of God is a divine power, that it is Spirit, that it is higher than human comprehension, that it is pre-eternal and brought out to us from the heavenly treasures, that contains within itself divine properties, that it is God Himself? Or the apostates Stragorodsky and Troitsky, for whom the name of God is only a conventional symbol and empty sound?
Reading the teachings of the Holy Fathers about the name of God, one unwittingly reaches a state of awe: the name of God is a sacred mystery given us for salvation. Reading the Synodal Epistle: it is the result of ordinary human thought, clothed in words or sounds – what here is sacred and mysterious? Are the Holy Fathers and the Synodal theologians talking about the same thing? What specifically did the Holy Fathers call the names of God? To help us open this question, to open slightly the sacred mystery of the name of God, we are helped by the great Saint of God, Gregory Palamas, and a host of other Byzantine and ancient Greek divinely-wise Holy Fathers.
St. Gregory Palamas, in his priceless works, clearly distinguishes, on the one hand, behind the name of God as the fruit of created human thought, expressed in sounds or the written word (cf., Against Gregoras 26-28) in the realm of so-called natural revelation, when from the knowledge of sensory creation one makes certain conclusions about the Creator. But, on the other hand, St. Gregory distinguishes the name of God as the uncreated self-revelation of God Himself, as His divine word exceeding our minds – the name “which is higher than every name, and word, and reason” (cf. Homily 60. On Theophany 4); a pre-eternal name, “of which there is nothing more fearful” (cf. Homily 57. On the Sunday of the Fathers 1); a name, with which we do not name Him, but with which He names Himself (cf. On the Divine Energies and their Communion, 16).
One thing is a vague foreknowledge of God through His created, sensual world and, in accordance therewith a foreknowledge of His name, which is possible even for pagans wise in the natural ways of this world. It is quite another thing to have direct knowledge of God, face to face, in the uncreated Light of His self-revelation, when He names Himself with unspeakable names – the knowledge of these names of God is available only by grace to His Saints.
Has not now the shadow of the law passed away, and grace come? Will we really think about the names of God only in the ordinary sense that the pagans allow and know, and deny the sacred mystery of the names of God that God Himself reveals directly to His Saints?
According to the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas, God even in His energies is incomprehensible to the power of the human mind, but we see them only through the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Against Akindynos 4:19). God is known and named not by the means of human created thought, but by His uncreated energies (cf. ibid., 1:3:6).
Therefore it is a great misconception to think that man gives names to God, just as he gives names to creatures that he knows by the power of his reason as objects of his knowledge, identifying by means of his thought their properties and, in accordance and in accordance with these properties, naming them with verbal names. No! We cannot think of God as an object of our knowledge for our created mind, which could as it were know and define Him. Let us not speak such a blasphemy! It is not human reason, by its creaturely power, that gives Him names, but God Who reveals them through grace to man through his pre-eternal names (cf. Exodus 3:14).
In this sense we can speak of God’s names as divine, uncreated energies. But being received by the purified mind of the Holy Prophets, these name-energies are “clothed” in created human thoughts uttered by created sounds or written in created letters. In this sense, we speak of God’s names as sacred symbols, verbal icons, which are created images of uncreated name-energies.
Unfortunately, certain opponents of name-glorifying reinterpret the grace-filled thought of St. Gregory Palamas and, pulling out of context certain polemical statements in which he mentions the names of God as the fruit of natural knowledge, or of the names of God as verbal symbols, make hasty conclusions that the Saint allegedly did not in any way allow one to speak of the names of God as uncreated energies. For example, these perverse commentators cite these words against the heretic Nicephoras Gregoras: “But Gregoras, thinking that this was said in a temporal sense, placed the divine nature before the divine energies, crazily suggesting that the divine energies were names” (Against Gregoras, 28).
But if these unfortunate commentators bothered to understand the Saint’s thought in context, he would be convinced that the issue here is something else altogether than what they would like to see in these words. The heretic Gregoras was denying the real distinction between the essence and energy in God, and those places on the writings of the Holy Fathers in which this distinction was made, he reinterpreted in the sense that the difference was allegedly simply nominal, that is, that it existed only in our thoughts and language, which expresses these various names, while in reality – in God Himself – there is allegedly one simple substance in which there are supposedly not, and cannot be, any distinctions, because “energy is the same as name,” understanding names in the simple human sense as expressed by words.
Is it really in this sense that the name-glorifiers named God’s names as uncreated energies? Of course not. Using this method of interpretation it is possible even to conclude that Holy Scripture teaches that there is no God. But, as we know, Scripture does not teach this – it is what the fool says in his heart.
As for what St. Gregory Palamas actually taught, and how one needs to interpret his teaching about names that God Himself reveals to us, it is better to listen to witnesses and faithful followers. Thus, the saint’s blessed disciple, David Disypatos clearly says that the names of God, in this exalted sense, are His uncreated energy: “If these names exhibit neither any divine essence, nor one simple single essence, it remains to recognize that, in accordance with the holy theologian, they are by nature intrinsic to God’s nature, as His powers and energies, and are distinctive or identifying characteristics of the Divine nature” (On the Blasphemy of Barlaam and Akindynos, 26).
On the intrinsic uncreated names with which He names Himself, and is not named by us, one of St. Gregory Palamas’ disciples, the great St. Mark of Ephesus, writes clearly: “How can there coincide in one and the same [entity] both non-being and to be everything? After all, there can never be anything between the essence of God and what exists, according to which God is called both an essence and a cause (and not according to the His very essence). What else can it be, except energy, which even if one wants to call it a thought or idea, we do not object – with the exception that (we note), that our Artist (God) is named not by [created] ideas, [but as] having His own name and thought [of His] essence, and the very idea of artistry is known and given from the outside. God, being nameless in [His] essence and by nature and from eternity holding and surpassing in Himself the idea of being, is called according to them and from them” (On Essence and Energy, 16).
Long before St. Gregory Palamas on the names-energies, perhaps not as clearly, but more covertly, taught many, many Holy Fathers. Thus, for example, St. Dionysius the Areopagite in his tract On the Divine Names, called the names of God “divine agathourgiai,” that is, “divine good energies.”
So whom should we believe, dear Vladyka, Holy Scripture, which teaches of the name of God being worthy of veneration, being higher than every name; Sts. Gregory Palamas, Mark of Ephesus, Anastasius of Sinai, and many other Holy Fathers, who witness to God’s pre-eternal names, or to the Protestantizing theologians of the Chalki school, who are unaware of the verbal name-symbol of the Divine self-revelation of the name-energy?
Therefore, in my turn I caution you, Your Beatitude, against hasty and ill-considered opinions about the sacred mystery of the names of God and call upon you to study carefully the works of the Holy Fathers on this dogmatic question most important for our salvation.
In conclusion I want to assure you, dear Vladyka, that we do not by any means consider the name of God to be God’s essence, for the essence is absolutely unknowable and unnamable. But, I repeat again, in the sense given above we venerate the name of God as His own uncreated energies, with which He names Himself and reveals these names through His Saints, as we have learned from them: “Question: The Name of God is essential, personal, efficient (energetic), symbolical, or metaphorical? Answer: Clearly it is efficient (energetic), for it does not reveal to us the essence of God (because that is impossible to know), but [the name] ‘God’ reveals to us only the contemplation of His activity” (St. Anastasius the Sinaite, The Guidebook).
We do not deify variable sounds or letters, with which the name of God is expressed in various human languages; we do not deify the created names and symbols (which is what, for example, the Russian philosophers and sophiologists like Florensky, Bulgakov, and other did – a misinterpretation that we do not accept!) Therefore we do not think that the mere utterance of the verbal name of God sanctifies by grace and makes one a partaker of God by necessity or, so to speak, automatically. After all, touching a holy icon does not automatically make one a participant in its grace, and simply eating the Holy Gifts does not automatically make one a partaker of the Body of Christ and does not automatically deify us. But everyone partakes to the measure of his capacity, depending on the free gifts of the Holy Spirit.
I sincerely trust, dear Vladyka, that the doctrine of the veneration of the Name of God – in the sense that it has been put forth above – will not cause you to doubt its exact correspondence with the teachings of the Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church. And that means that the controversies connected with this teaching should not cause division in our Holy Church, which would only benefit the enemy of our salvation. I assure you of the most sincere and brotherly feeling of love for you and ask you, for the sake of love in Christ Jesus, to come without fail to our sacred celebration in the St. John the Forerunner Monastery on July 13-14 (New Calendar), so that in personal contact with me and all the Fullness of our Church, which will meet in these days at a Local Council, we can resolve any remaining confusion. May the grace of the Holy Spirit, which has always acted in the Church from the day of Pentecost, guide us into all truth and not allow us to evade the Truth, that is, the Church. I cordially wish you God’s abundant help in your holy service and bodily health. I ask that you now forget me in your holy prayers.
With much love in the Lord,
Your Beatitude’s loyal brother.
June 16, 2014