Archive for March 4th, 2009

Vladimir Lossky on Faith

March 4, 2009

In St. Paul, knowledge of God writes itself into a personal relationship expressed in terms of reciprocity [exchange]: reciprocity with the object of theology (which, in reality, is a subject), reciprocity also with those to whom the theological word is addressed. At its best, it is communion: I know as I am known. Before the development of Christian theology, this mystery of communion appears absent from Greek through: it is found only in Philo, that is to say, in a partially vlad_lossky_200biblical context. Theology, then, is located in a relationship of revelation where the initiative belongs to God, while implying a human response, the free response of faith and love, which the theologians of the Reformation have often forgotten. The involvement of God calls forth our involvement. The theological quest supposes therefore the prior coming of what is quested, or rather of Him Who has already come to us and is present in us: God was the first to love us and He sent us His Son, as St. John says. This coming and this presence are seized by faith which thus underlies, with priority and in all necessity, theological thought. Certainly, faith is present in all walks, in all sciences 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. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the manifestation of realities unseen (Heb. 11:1). What one quests is already present, precedes us, makes possible our questing itself. “Through faith, we comprehend (we think) how the ages have been produced” (Heb. 11:3). Thus faith allows us to think, it gives us true intelligence. Knowledge is given to us by faith, that is to say, by our participatory adherence to the presence of Him Who reveals Himself. Faith is therefore not a psychological attitude, a mere fidelity. It is an ontological relationship between man and God, 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. “In Baptism,” said Irenaeus, “one receives the immutable canon of truth.” It is first the “rule of faith,” transmitted to the initiated. But this regula fidei (Tertullian, Irenaeus) implies the very faculty of receiving it. “The heretics who have perverted the rule of truth,” St. Irenaeus wrote, “preach themselves when they believe that they are preaching Christianity (Adversus haereses, Book III). This faculty is the personal existence of man, it is his nature made to assimilate itself to divine life – both mortified in their state of separation and death and vivified by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Faith as ontological participation included in a personal meeting is therefore the first condition for theological knowledge.

From Introduction to Orthodox Theology, pp. 16-17.


Lossky can be notoriously hard to read – partly because his thought is very careful and condensed. The most striking thing to me in this passage is its conclusion – recognizing that theological faith is participation and personal meeting. His careful distinction between the faith man uses in science, in which there is no certitude but only hypothesis, and faith in the theological realm where it actually becomes the faculty for certitude are absolutely key. In much modern theological writing (non-Orthodox) faith is defined only in the first manner – and incertitude has become something of a moment for celebration. As I have noted earlier, such an approach to faith is the ground of ecumenism – for ignorance need have no boundaries.

This is not the ignorance which Orthodoxy teaches – an ignorance that is the transcending of knowledge in the life of prayer and communion with God. In such an exercise, ignorance is not the lack of something, but instead a fullness. It is from this fullness – a fullness that transcends being itself – that God said, “Let there be light.” It was this fullness that was made known to us in the Word become flesh.

Thus we say of the Mother of God in this first week of Great Lent:

Ineffable is the childbearing of a seedless conception, unsullied the pregnancy of a Virgin Mother, for the birth of God renews natures.  So in all generations we magnify thee in orthodox fashion as the Mother and Bride of God.

Irmos of Ode 9 of the Great Canon

The Word becomes flesh, but in an “ineffable” manner. It cannot be spoken nor described. But, by faith, we may know it (else we could not sing).

It is thus with the whole life of the Church – for the life of the Church is none other than the life of the Living God. We are Baptized into Him, made one with Him. We know Him and faith receives this knowledge in certitude. But such certitude is not easily expressed, except to say, “I know Whom I have believed [faithed]” (2 Timothy 1:12).