Dumitru Staniloae begins his chapter on the knowledge of God by distinguishing between rational knowledge and apophatic knowledge; and over the course of the chapter he unpacks, contrasts, and synthesizes these two forms of knowledge. I was surprised, therefore, when he suddenly introduced a third knowing of God, which he locates between the rational and the apophatic—the knowledge of faith:
Knowledge through faith based on supernatural revelation is superior to natural knowledge from reason and strengthens, clarifies and expands the latter. This knowledge contains within itself a certain conscious experience of God, like that of a pressure exerted upon the human persons by God’s personal presence. This experience is superior to that which comes from natural knowledge, and, as such, is something which transcends rational knowledge both affirmative and negative, although it has recourse to affirmative and negative terms in order to give itself a certain expression. (The Experience of God, I:116)
One immediately notes the similarities between faith knowledge and apophatic knowledge: both transcend the rational knowing of God; both employ the affirmative and negative language of rational knowledge in order to express themselves.
I probably should not have been surprised by Staniloae’s late introduction of the knowledge of faith, given his analysis of natural and supernatural revelation in the preceding chapters. At the heart of supernatural revelation, to which Holy Scripture bears witness, is the manifestation of God as person. In the history of Israel and the Church, God discloses himself through word and deed and by the Spirit impresses his personal reality upon the mind of the believer. Through faith the human person apprehends and knows the divine person:
By supernatural revelation, God causes his own words to appear directly in the conscience of the believer, or other words which manifest his own Person. In this, God does not work through nature but through a kind of utterance and action which makes more obvious the presence of his Person, as he guides man towards union with that Personal reality as his final goal. Through this, God enters into direct and evident communion with the believer and this convinces him of God’s existence and satisfies his thirst for communion with infinite Person, giving him proof at the same time that he is not left to the care of blind forces that will cause him to be lost, but is raised instead to a relationship with the supreme Personal reality who will lead him into an eternal existence in full communion with himself. (I:23)
Supernatural revelation generates the knowledge of faith: not only must it be received in the freedom of faith, but it only achieves its deifying goal through the life of faith in the community of faith. Staniloae understands the history of salvation as spiritual ascent—God leading humanity, step by step, into the fullness of personal communion. “Each stage of revelation,” he writes, “carries within it a force which drives the spiritual life of our nature to a level where it is made capable of entering a new period, one inaugurated by a series of new and extraordinary supernatural acts and by words of a higher knowledge and experience” (I:26). In the Old Testament, God makes himself known to his people as divine person who transcends nature, thereby persuading them to attach themselves to him in faith. In the New Testament, God unites himself to human nature and by death and resurrection liberates that nature from the automatism and impersonal necessity of nature. Through the Holy Spirit believers are assimilated to the person of Christ, in whom they realize their absolute personhood:
Thus, Christ represents the climax of supernatural revelation and the full confirmation and clarification of the meaning of our existence through the fulfillment of this existence within himself, the one in whom our ultimate union with God, and thus our perfection also, is achieved. But simultaneously it can be seen that the absolute after which we aspire does not have an impersonal character, but is itself Person. Moreover, as we ourselves enter into ultimate communion with the Absolute as person, we also participate in the absolute. We are called to become an absolute by grace through our participation in the one who is personal Absolute by nature. The one who is personal Absolute by nature wishes to grant the human person a share in his absolute character, in as much as he himself becomes man. (I:28)
Students of John Zizioulas will note similarities to his theological program.
The knowledge of faith, therefore, necessarily transcends the knowledge of reason. It is intrinsically existential and transformative, lived out in the dialogical life of faith in relationship with the God who is person. It thus partakes of the apophatic in its apprehension of undefinable mystery:
This existential experience of God is combined with the apophatic experience of him, although it places more emphasis upon the moving, personal character of God in his relationship with us than does the apophatic experience which sees the light of God in the overwhelming of the world. Existential experience also combines with the knowledge of God as creator and providential guide of the world (cataphatic knowledge). As a result it makes God known in these capacities in a way that is more intimate for man, while at the same time existential experience is broadened by means of cataphatic knowledge. The combination of these kinds of knowledge can be seen in the case of Job or in a host of places in the Psalms. To Job, who wishes to understand why God has sent him his suffering, God displays his wonders of nature so that Job might accept the mystery of his acts which transcend all understanding. The Psalmist too, knowing from so many circumstances in his life the presence of God which transcends understanding, praises him at the same time for the greatness of his acts in nature.
Through these three kinds of knowledge the personal interest God shows towards man, together with his mystery and greatness that are beyond understanding, come into relief. Through all three, God is known as lover according to the measure of our love for him and for our neighbor. (I:122)
Staniloae proposes an indivisible threefold apprehension of the Holy Trinity—the knowledge of reason, the knowledge of personal faith, and the knowledge of apophatic experience. He thus moves beyond the fruitless debate between Eastern and Western Christians regarding the apophatic and cataphatic knowing of the divine Creator. His presentation opens up important ecumenical possibilities. He challenges Roman Catholics to acknowledge the limitations of human reason and the distorting impact of scholasticism upon theological reflection and the life of prayer. Intellectual speculation must be grounded upon the existential and mystical experience of the living God. He challenges Protestants to recognize the fulfillment of revelation in the deification of the human being. Revelation surpasses the propositional word and intends the spiritualization of the believer. And he challenges the Orthodox to a theological synthesis of reason, faith, and theosis. A rigid distinction between the rational and the apophatic cannot be properly maintained.