THEOPHANEIA: Forum on the Jewish Roots of Orthodox Spirituality

Alexander Golitzin

THEOPHANEIA: Forum on the Jewish Roots of Orthodox Spirituality

Theophany is at the heart of Orthodox Tradition. It is what the Christian East has always understood as the very content of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The word means, literally, the manifestation or appearance of God: God become visible. God’s appearances mark or indeed comprise the key moments of the sacred history: Adam hides from God walking in the Garden; Jacob sees the ladder to heaven at Bethel and God presiding over it and the angels; the same Patriarch wrestles with the Angel of the Lord at Penuel and receives the name, Israel; Moses is accorded the Name at the burning bush; the divine Presence as the fiery Glory rides in the pillar of cloud leading Israel out of Egypt, descends on Sinai at the giving of the Covenant, appears as a king enthroned before Moses and the Elders of Israel at the Covenant meal, and then again alone to Moses alone on the mountain’s peak, overshadows the newly-constructed tabernacle at the end of the book of Exodus, and descends as "fire from heaven" to consume the sacrifice at the tabernacle’s consecration in Leviticus. The Glory appears again at the consecration of Solomon’s temple, where Isaiah later sees the King of heaven enthroned. Ezekiel is favored with the vision of the Glory "in likeness as a man" riding the chariot throne, sees the same depart the Temple on the eve of its destruction, and then re-enter it on the occasion of its eschatological restoration. From the Temple, according to the prophets, God’s Glory will appear at the end of days so that "all flesh shall see it" (cf. Isa 40:5; Mal 3:1). These theophanies are what will then illumine the meaning of Jesus Messiah for the New Testament writers, who will recognize him as the definitive appearance of God, the Immanuel, born from the "Power of the Most High overshadowing" the Virgin (Lk 1:35), and declared "the light to the nations and Glory of Israel" by righteous Symeon. St. Paul calls him "the form of God", and the Fourth Gospel says "we have seen his glory" when "he tabernacled among us". He is revealed to the three Apostles on Mount Tabor as the Glory who appeared to Moses on Sinai, and who spoke to Elijah on Horeb (I K 19). Isaiah "saw his Glory", says the Fourth Gospel, referring to the prophet’s Temple vision, while the Synoptic Gospels present Christ’s death as parting the Temple veil, and his exaltation as ascent to the right hand of the Father on the divine throne, where Stephen the first-martyr sees him (Acts 7) in the same splendor that John the Seer will see illumining the city and world to come (Rev 21-22).

Theophany permeates Orthodox tradition throughout, informing its dogmatic theology and its liturgy. That Jesus, Mary’s son, is the very One who appeared to Moses and the prophets — this is the consistent witness of the ante-Nicene Fathers, and remains foundational throughout the fourth-century, Trinitarian controversies and the later Christological disputes. From its beginnings, the Church’s liturgy has been understood as the mirror of heaven revealing "the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem" (Heb 12:22). It is "the icon of the divine beauty", according to St. Dionysius Areopagites, and "the exact image of heaven". As a modern Orthodox abbot writes: "There is a single living and moving image of the glory of Christ which becomes present in our worship…He who sits enthroned there, in heaven, is also here, upon the cherubim, with fire and radiance of light." This visible manifestation of God and of the world of heaven which is the liturgy "becomes", according to the same writer, "our life, bread, light, river of life, voices as of cataracts, just as above in heaven." We see and eat "the bread of angels" (Ps 78:25), "the living bread come down from heaven" (Jn 6:50-51).

Moses came from Sinai "with shining face" (Ex 34:29-35), a likeness of God, indeed himself a theophany, and a promise thus which Orthodoxy has always understood as, in Christ, extended to all humanity. Theophany is therefore also at the heart of Orthodox soteriology and spirituality, an emphasis encapsulated by the later use of the Greek word, theosis, and already adumbrated by the New Testament writers: from the shadow of the Apostle curing the sick and possessed (Acts 5:15), to Stephen’s face "as the face of an angel", to St. Paul’s assurance of the Glory abiding within the believer (2 Cor 3:18-4:6), to our Lord’s promise of the same in the Gospel of John (Jn 17:5, 22-24). The line of witnesses continues through the martyrs and ascetics of the early centuries, to the holy monks, such as St. Anthony coming forth from his fortress retreat like "an angel of light" (Vita Antonii, Syriac version), or Abba Macarius the Great "like a god on earth…covering the sins of the brethren", or the radiant faces of Abbas Sisoes, Pambo, and Silvanus, and on down the generations to Saints Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory of Sinai, and Sabbas of Vatopedi, to Seraphim Sarovsky, and on to the presently circulating testimonies about contemporary saints of Mount Athos and elsewhere in the Orthodox world. The line of witnesses is continuous, consistent, and centers on the good news of God made present and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, in the Church’s worship, and in her saints.

There is, however, on break in that continuity. While the witness continues uninterrupted in the liturgical texts, in hagiography, in the practice of the monasteries and especially of the hermitages, the formal, academic theology taught in Orthodox schools since the latters’ formation in the wake of — and responding to — the Western European Reformation and Counter-Reformation has for long lost sight of this essential, theophanic thread. Some have described post-Byzantine Orthodox theology as without its own voice, reduced to using Protestant arguments against Roman Catholics, and vice-versa. Others have referred to a "Babylonian Captivity" of Orthodox thought, or of its "pseudo-morphosis". What is incontestable is a certain loss of consciousness, at least in our schools and manuals, of what we have been sketching here. The twentieth century saw a remarkable effort on the part of some Orthodox theologians to recover an awareness of the Traditions, of its proper voice and vision. We would see this effort embodied chiefly (though not exclusively) in the scholarly movement that the late Fr. Georges Florovsky called "the neo-patristic synthesis", which has included theologians from the Russian emigration, from Greece, Romania, and Serbia.

Our seminar wishes to build on the work of these scholars, but with much greater attention devoted to an area where we believe their work was lacking: the patrimony of biblical and post-biblical Israel. It is from the latter that Christianity itself arose, and, equally, it is from the great pool of Israel’s traditions and imagery that, from the New Testament writers to the end of the Byzantine era and beyond, the Church has continued to draw in order to frame her dogmas, to voice her praises, to understand her vocation, and to describe the Christian calling as embodied in her saints. No one who has seriously studied patristic exegesis, or ancient theological controversy, or the liturgy, or the writings of the neptic fathers can have missed the overwhelming presence of exactly those images and texts that we sketched or alluded to in our opening paragraph. Yet, neither in the older school theology that has haunted our seminaries, nor even (with some exceptions) among the advocates of the "neo-patristic synthesis" do the great theophanies either of Israel, or of the New Testament (save the Transfiguration) enjoy the prominent, indeed central role that they should have, and that they do have in the Fathers, in the liturgical texts, and in the spiritual writers. Perhaps one, neglected indication of the difference obtaining between the ancients and the monks, on the one hand, and modern Orthodox academics struggling to articulate the Tradition, on the other hand, is the enormous library of pseudepigraphical and apocryphal materials from post-biblical Israel and Christian antiquity that was continuously copied and presumably valued — though seldom quoted — by Eastern Christians, and especially by their monks. Our fathers in God apparently thought these documents worthy of the considerable attention necessary to copy them, but one would be hard-pressed to find a single, contemporary Orthodox theologian who devotes any significant space whatever to their consideration.

Beginning from this one, seemingly minor point, we look to recent developments in the study of apocalyptic literature, of the Qumran Scrolls, of Gnosticsm, and of later Jewish mysticism, which we believe point to lines of inquiry that we are convinced throw new and welcome light on the sources and continuities of Orthodox theology, liturgy, and spirituality. Here we must salute the labors sixty years ago of the Jewish scholar, Gershom Scholem, who sought successfully to demonstrate the continuities of Jewish mystical literature from the ancient apocalypses, through the Talmudic-era hekhalot texts, to medieval Cabbala. This thesis has had an extraordinarily fruitful effect on the several fields noted above. To cite but one example, and one which is or should be immediately relevant to Orthodox students of theology, there is the study on St. Paul published in 1992 by another Jewish scholar, Alan Segal. Without any references to Eastern Christian writers, or any ostensible knowledge of them, but on the basis of Scholem’s thesis of continuities, Professor Segal constructs an account of the Apostle’s Christology, ecclesiology, soteriology, and mysticism which is stunningly reminiscent of nothing so much as the later Byzantine Hesychasts, right down to St. Gregory Palamas on the uncreated light which streams from the face of the transfigured Christ, and which is present and available to Christians even now, if partially, in the present life. Prominent as well in this modern scholar’s work, as before in Scholem, and together with the publications of the many others who are working in the latter’s train, is the presence of exactly those pseudepigrapha and apocrypha cherished by generations of Orthodox monks. We do not believe this to be coincidence, nor of minor import, but rather an indication of where we should ourselves be looking in order to trace the continuities of the Great Tradition, and to demonstrate its roots in the Israel of the Revelation.

To sum up: we understand our work as directed at once ad intra, to our fellow Orthodox, and ad extra, to the larger scholarly world. We hope to stimulate and enourage Orthodox students of theology to look again to the same sources which moved the great Fathers of the Church, and the holy monks. By those sources we mean first and foremost the canonical scriptures, but, in addition, also that great penumbra of witness which, while occasionally odd or even perverse (thus Gnostics and Manichees), still bears vital testimony to traditions that we meet in the writings of the Fathers and embodied in our saints, both in the distant past and in the present day. The latter, the saints, are indeed the true lens through which we read the ancient texts, and in whom we find the witness of those old documents verified and illumined. To the world outside the Orthodox Church, especially to the scholarly world, we offer our work as at once an apology — in the sense of an explanation and a defense — for Orthodox theology and spirituality, and as a labor in common with, first of all, our brothers and sisters in Christianity, who are also seeking out the origins of the Faith once received by the Apostles; and, secondly, with Jewish scholars who are exploring continuities with their own past; and to both we acknowledge ourselves profoundly indebted. They have helped us, and they continue to help us discover ourselves. We hope in our turn to return the favor.