Unknown God, Known in His Activities

Incomprehensibility of God during the Trinitarian Controversy of the 4th Century

by Tomasz Stępień (Author) Karolina Kochańczyk-Bonińska (Author)
©2018 Monographs 254 Pages
Open Access


What can man know about God? This question became one of the main problems during the 4th-century Trinitarian controversy, which is the focus of this book. Especially during the second phase of the conflict, the claims of Anomean Eunomius caused an emphatic response of Orthodox writers, mainly Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa. Eunomius formulated two ways of theology to show that we can know both the substance (ousia) and activities (energeiai) of God. The Orthodox Fathers demonstrated that we can know only the external activities of God, while the essence is entirely incomprehensible. Therefore the 4th-century discussion on whether the Father and the Son are of the same substance was the turning point in the development of negative theology and shaping the Christian conception of God.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Contents
  • Abbreviations
  • 1. The origins of Christian Negative Theology
  • 1.1 The ambiguity of the Holy Scripture concerning the knowledge of God
  • 1.2 Philo of Alexandria – transcendence and negative theology
  • 1.3 The apologetic usage of negative theology in the 2nd century
  • 1.4 Clement of Alexandria – the unknown Father revealed in the Son of God
  • 1.5 The incomprehensible Father in Origen
  • 2. Incomprehensibility of God in the First Phase of the Arian Controversy
  • 2.1 The knowledge of God in Arius
  • 2.1.1 The problem of Platonism of Arius
  • 2.1.2 Monad and Dyad – the problem of creation
  • 2.1.3 Creation ex nihilo? The problem of a “non-being”
  • 2.1.4 The attributes of God from Arius’ perspective
  • 2.1.5 Negative theology of Arius
  • 2.2 The transcendence and knowledge of God in Athanasius
  • 2.2.1 The knowledge of the image of God
  • 2.2.2 Knowing God from the creations
  • 2.3 Positive and negative theology reconciled in Marius Victorinus
  • 2.3.1 God as non-existent above existents
  • 2.3.2 Negative theology in speaking of God as the One
  • 3. “You Worship What You Do Not Know”
  • 3.1 “Ingeneracy” as a positive attribute and the essence of God
  • 3.2 Worship and knowledge – a puzzling question
  • 3.2.1 The distinction between “that is” and “what is”
  • 3.2.2 Faith and understanding
  • 3.3 You are like the Samaritans…
  • 4. Ousia and Energeia (Substance and Activity)
  • 4.1 Eunomius and the two ways of theology
  • 4.2 The philosophical sources of οὐσία and ἐνέργεια
  • 4.2.1 Aristotle – the origins of ἐνέργεια
  • 4.2.2 The use of ἐνέργεια in Middle-Platonism and Plotinus
  • 4.3 The Holy Scripture and early Christian concepts of ἐνέργεια
  • 4.3.1 The Holy Scripture on the activities of God as a way to know His attributes
  • 4.3.2 The Church Fathers and the sources of Eunomius’ methods
  • 4.4 The knowledge of the Unbegotten substance in two ways
  • 4.4.1 The first method – from substance to activity
  • 4.4.2 The second method – from activity to substance
  • 4.5 Basil of Caesarea on language and comprehensibility of God
  • 4.6 Gregory of Nyssa on knowing the activities and the essence of God
  • 4.6.1 The ontological status of God’s activities
  • 4.6.2 The criticism of the second way of Eunomius
  • 4.6.3 The activity of generation and other activities of God
  • 4.6.4 Activities and incomprehensibility of God
  • 5. The Development of Negative Theology in the Latter Half of the 4th Century
  • 5.1 Basil of Caesarea’s incomprehensibility of οὐσία
  • 5.2 Negative theology and mystical experience in Gregory of Nyssa
  • 5.3 Unknown God of Gregory of Nazianzus
  • 5.4 John Chrysostom against Eunomius
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

← 20 | 21 →


← 22 | 23 →

1.  The origins of Christian Negative Theology

1.1  The ambiguity of the Holy Scripture concerning the knowledge of God

God reveals Himself in the Old Testament, tells Abraham and Moses who He is, and what He demands. God also gives His law and orders how He should be worshiped. In other words, God makes Himself known to man, while His nature remains hidden. It is often revealed in symbols: He is present in the burning bush, in the cloud, and the pillar of fire, but those are merely symbols which reveal His power and glory, while at the same time, they somehow hide the mysterious essence of God. This fact was recognized and widely commented on by the Church Fathers. They paid special attention to the figure of Moses, who was closest to seeing God’s nature since “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” (Ex 33: 11). However, in other passages, the Book of Exodus clearly states that he was unable to see the face of God. During the two encounters with God on Mount Sinai, he sees only the cloud (24: 15–18), and to the demand of Moses, God answers that “you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live.” (Ex 33–20) Therefore, hidden in a cleft of rock, he sees only the back of God who passes by (Ex 33: 17–23). As we will see, those verses played a very important role in the evolution of Christian mysticism and they were used especially by Gregory of Nyssa to show incomprehensibility of God. For the Church Fathers, however, the knowledge of God is never a theoretical issue. Knowing God rather means being closer to him and ascending the mystical path. Man cannot worship God of whom he knows nothing. So the first step always belongs to God, who reveals Himself to man. It is very significant that in the Old Testament all the greatest revelations took place before great journeys. In the case of Abraham, it was going out of the Chaldean city of Ur (Gen 12: 1–4). In the case of Israel, it was going out of Egypt. Abraham heard the voice of God, and Moses saw the burning bush and heard the voice. A revelation of God always provokes one to leave the place and go forward. Along the road, man gets closer to God and step by step his knowledge of God goes deeper. ← 23 | 24 → But the road never ends in seeing God face to face. He reveals Himself, invites to know Him better, but still remains unknown.

One of the strongest negative statements of the Old Testament is linked with the struggle for monotheism. God has a transcendent nature and, therefore, there is a strong prohibition of making any image of Him.42 The God of Israel is so different from pagan idols that there could be no likeness between Him and those idols. Therefore, any representation of God could be misleading and give a false image of His nature. God stays beyond any human imagination and thought, and his ways and thoughts are far remote from man. (Is 55: 8–9.) There is no one like God in His Holiness.43 On the one hand, God reveals Himself, but on the other, He stays beyond any likeness to any other concept of God which can appear in human imagination. Therefore, the Old Testament leaves the question of knowing God open. On the one hand, Israel was aware of God’s presence and care, but on the other, closeness to God was reserved for some figures, and even they were unable to see Him face to face. God, then, despite all what He revealed, will remain the “hidden God,” who hides His face to man.44

The New Testament brings almost the same ambiguity of knowing and the lack of knowledge of God. However, this dialectic approach is expressed in a new manner. The incarnation of Christ is the only source of true knowledge of God. Since “no one has ever seen God,” any cognition is possible by “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made him known.” (J 1: 18)45 The revelation brought by the Incarnated is limited, and the nature of God will always be hidden since He “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim 6: 16). So the human nature of Christ reveals and also in some aspect hides the nature of God, and the true vision of God which is non-symbolic and direct is reserved to the afterlife. St Paul points it out very clearly in a passage of 1 Corinthians: “For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face ← 24 | 25 → to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known.” (1 Cor 13: 12). All human desires and longings to know God will be achievable in the afterlife, and it is the essence of the reward for the faithful.

St Paul also writes about God’s knowledge of the Greeks. The fragment of the Letter to Romans is so important that it needs a more in-depth analysis, since, as we will see, it will reappear in the discussion on the activities of God. The Greeks achieved the knowledge of God which is sufficient to admit that He should be worshiped. Since they did not do that, this knowledge is the reason of accusation. God manifested Himself to the Greeks (ὁ θεὸς γὰρ αὐτοῖς ἐφανέρωσεν), but this was not the kind of revelation which was granted to Israel; it was not a voice that was heard or a symbol that was seen, but rather God showed Himself in His creation.

“For the invisible things (ἀόρατα) of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen (ποιήμασιν νοούμενα), being perceived through the things that are made (ποιήμασιν).” (Rom 1: 20)

This passage was always interpreted as admittance that man is able to have the knowledge of God thanks to natural reasons. The works of God are an explicit testimony of his divinity (θειότης) and his everlasting power (ἀΐδιος αὐτοῦ δύναμις). So the only things to be known are God’s attributes, which can give some insight of who He is, but they do not show his essence. As we shall see, this point will become very important for Clement of Alexandria and later for the 4th-century discussion on the knowledge of God, because St Paul himself admits that the knowledge of God is the knowledge of what comes from him and not of his nature.

A second important topic of this passage, which will be present in the Arian controversy, is the relation of the knowledge of God to the ability to worship Him. The Greeks possessed enough knowledge to praise the glory of God, and St Paul accused them of not doing so; moreover, they kept that knowledge to themselves (Rom 1: 18). They deserved the wrath of God because “knowing God (γνότες τὸν θεὀν), they glorified him not as God, neither gave thanks…” (1: 21). For the Apostle, the relation between the knowledge of and worshiping God goes both ways. The knowledge of God should lead to worship, but a lack of such worship also has disastrous consequences for further knowledge. That is why their reasoning became ← 25 | 26 → vain and their hearts were darkened.46 Since their knowledge did not make them worship true God, instead of being wise they became foolish, because they continued to worship idols. In the eyes of St Paul, this simply meant that they “exchanged the truth of God for a lie.” (Rom 1: 25) This passage, thus, clearly shows that for the Apostle the link between knowledge and worship is fundamental and the two are never separated, which will be seen in the discussion on the troublesome Anomean question of whether “You worship what you know, or what you do not know.” Therefore, Neo-Arian accusations of the Orthodox were of much greater importance than we would admit from the present perspective, and the participants in the polemic certainly could refer their discussion to the Bible, which shows the topic in such light.

The question of the possibility of knowing God can be seen as the question of the limits of knowledge. God can be known to some extent, and such knowledge is indispensable for worshiping and reaching God. On the other hand, it is also evident that man with his limited powers of intellect cannot know God as much as he wants to. The texts of the Old and New Testament leave the question open. Christian writers, who search the Bible for answers to the question whether the knowledge of God is possible, may have found answers confirming both positions. The Holy Scripture contains the knowledge of God, who reveals Himself while at the same time provides very strong evidence of his incomprehensibility.

1.2  Philo of Alexandria – transcendence and negative theology

The writings of Philo of Alexandria are among the earliest examples of using negative theology as the primary way of speaking of God. Although his doctrine was based on the Pentateuch in the Septuagint version commented in the spirit of Platonic philosophy, his influence was not significant for the Jewish or pagan tradition. His writings, however, were crucial to Christian theology, and his influence is especially seen in the development ← 26 | 27 → of the Alexandrian patristic tradition.47 Moreover, there is a resemblance between Philo’s account of creation of the universe and early Arian claims on the created character of the Logos,48 and we also must remember that Gregory of Nyssa himself found a quotation from Philo in Second Apology by Eunomius.49

The fundamental statement of Philo’s philosophy is the identification of the Platonic One with the God of the Old Testament.50 Here, for the first time in Ancient tradition, we observe speaking about the God of the Scripture in the language of philosophy. The God of the Scripture is the Creator of the Universe, and the act of creation of this kind was unknown to Greek philosophy, which saw the Universe as eternal. For Philo, the Creator is completely different and separated from the creations, and to emphasize his entirely different nature, he presents God as the only Uncreated (ἀγένητος) being. This distinction underlies the criticism of idolatry, because being creations, the Sun and the stars could no longer be treated as having the divine power and causing the events on Earth.51 God is also naturally the sole agent, and in relation to Him, the creations are always passive and receptive.52 God is then unlike any idols and, therefore, cannot ← 27 | 28 → be cognized like gods made by humans. So, naturally, the only Uncreated must be incomprehensible: “The Unoriginated [ἀγένητος] resembles nothing among created [γένεσις] things, but so completely transcends them that even the swiftest understanding falls far short of apprehending Him and acknowledges its failure.”53 The God of the Scripture is, then, not only unlike anything in the sensible world, but he also resists any likeness, comparison, or similitude. He cannot be perceived by sense and intellect:

“Do not however suppose that the Existent [ὄν] which truly exists is [καταλαμβάνεσθαι] apprehended by any man; for we have in us no organ by which we can envisage it, neither in sense, for it is not perceptible by sense, nor yet in mind [νοῦς]. So Moses the explorer of nature which lies beyond our vision [ἀειδής], Moses who, as the divine oracles tell us, entered into the darkness [γνόφος] (Exodus 20:21), by which figure they indicate existence [οὐσία] invisible and incorporeal, searched everywhere and into everything in his desire to see clearly and plainly Him, the object of our much yearning, who alone is good. And when there was no sign of finding aught, not even any semblance [ἰδέα] of what he hoped for, in despair of learning from others, he took refuge with the Object of his search Itself and prayed in these words: ‘Reveal Thyself to me that I may see Thee with knowledge (Exodus 33:13).’”54

Despite man’s effort God stays beyond our capabilities; He is without form since He is incorporeal and His substance is invisible. Getting closer to Him means entering into darkness. Philo exploits Moses’s ascend onto Mount Sinai, which will be later so important to Christian tradition, especially for Gregory of Nyssa. As Jean Daniélou points out, the exegesis of Moses’s ascend shows that the Holy Scripture remains the basis for Philo, but he explains the words of the Bible using a philosophical language.55 Philo says that the substance (ὀυσία) is incomprehensible (ἀκατάληπτος), and all the powers of the human soul are not enough to grasp Him.56 Finally, man can only gain the highest form of knowledge which is: “to apprehend that the God of real Being is apprehensible by no one [ἀκατάληπτος] and to see precisely this, that He is incapable of being seen (ἀόρατος).”57 ← 28 | 29 →

Despite claims of absolute incomprehensibility of God’s essence, Philo also says that we can know Him thanks to his actions as the Creator and Governor of the Universe. Here, we encounter one of the most difficult fragment of his doctrine – the teaching of the Powers (δυνάμεις).58 The substance of God, transcendent and impossible to comprehend, is simultaneously present and recognizable in creations. Philo often speaks about two main powers: Kingly and Creative,59 but he also mentions three other: Injunctive, Prohibitive, and Gracious.60 The structure of powers is hierarchical, and they play an important role in the ascent of the soul towards God, being at the same time subsequent levels of knowledge. When the faithful ascends towards God, he first encounters the prohibition of sin (Injunctive Power), then obedience of the Law (Prohibitive Power), and then repentance in the face of mercy (Gracious Power); next he acknowledges the sovereignty of God (Kingly Power); and he finally discovers creative love (Creative Power). The knowledge of God is, then, an essential part of Philo’s doctrine, where the way of the Powers constitutes a positive way (small mysteries) and the knowledge of the cloud becomes a negative way (higher mysteries).61 But what the initiate really knows when he approaches those powers? Philo claims that this is not the knowledge of the powers themselves, which stay incomprehensible, like the essence of God, but rather of activities which are the effects of those powers. We can see it in the following fragment of De posteritate Caini:

“This meant that all that follows in the wake of God is within the good man’s apprehension (καταληπτά), while He Himself alone is beyond it (ἀκατάληπτος), beyond, that is, in the line of straight and direct approach, a mode of approach by which (had it been possible) His quality would have been made known; but ← 29 | 30 → brought within ken by the powers that follow and attend Him; for these make evident not His essence but His subsistence from the things which He accomplishes.”62

Philo then says clearly that the only outcome of man’s effort is the knowledge of the subsistence (ὕπαρξιν) of God and that He is the Creator of the Universe.63 So, not knowing the Face of God, Moses knows “what is behind God” (Ex 30:23), and when God comes before him, he will know the wake (ὀπίσθια) of God. “Wake of God” is for Philo the symbol of what God’s action establishes in the world. Despite the lack of clarity and symbolism of Philo’s ideas for the first time, we can see how the division between essence and power is used to express the possibility of knowing God. There seems to be no separation between power and action yet, but in his discussion of powers, Philo clearly points out that they must be taken into account when we try to see the Creator and Governor of the Universe because otherwise we must admit that we can gain the knowledge of the essence of God, who stays incomprehensible. Powers, then, are necessary as a consequence of God’s incomprehensibility, and as such, they seem to have a philosophical rather than biblical origin. Tracing differences between Philo and Clement of Alexandria, David T. Runia points out that for the former δύναμις is a philosophical term “which allows the exegete to explain and expound activity of God as it is manifested in creation and humanity.”64 So the primary function of Philo’s use of the concept of power is to secure incomprehensibility of God’s essence rather than to open up the possibility of knowing it. As we shall see, when discussing the meaning of this concept in Clement of Alexandria, Philo’s claims on the remoteness and unknowability of God are much more radical than those of his Christian successor, who was so profoundly influenced by him. ← 30 | 31 →

1.3  The apologetic usage of negative theology in the 2nd century

The Bible’s ambiguity on whether we can know God is still present in the 2nd century AD. However, the defence of the Christian religion in the Roman Empire brought about a new background to it. Apologists must face pagan religions and answer serious accusations of atheism, immorality, and even cannibalism. Since Romans refuted anything that was new, including new religions, Christian writers try to argue that Christianity is nothing new. The only possible way to do it was to find something in ancient pagan cultures that could be seen close to Christian beliefs. As Benedict XVI notes, Christians did not see any connection between Christianity and pagan religions, but they saw such a link in philosophy.65 In a way, such connection was obvious since, as we have seen above, St Paul himself suggested that Greek philosophers found God by means of reason. Their fault was only not giving worship and thanks to such Deity. However, showing that Christianity was a philosophy was not enough – it was presented as the only true philosophy. St Justin Martyr is probably the best example of such argumentation. He claims without hesitation that Christianity is “the only sure and useful philosophy.”66 As A.J. Droge points out, the background of this claim could be found in the writings of various Greek philosophers of his time, who viewed philosophy after Aristotle as the history of corruption and decay. Posidonius of Apamea claimed that philosophy was given to humans by gods in primordial times, but later became corrupt and lost its unity by splitting into various schools.67 But the most interesting similarity can be found in Numenius of Apamea, who not only viewed himself as the restorer of the dogmatic teaching of the Platonic Academy, which ← 31 | 32 → was abandoned by Plato’s successors, but also argued for the barbarian sources of philosophy (especially Platonism and Pythagoreanism). The true philosophy of Plato can be restored only by tracing it back to Pythagoras and from Pythagoras to the most ancient barbarians.68 Numenius precedes Justin in claims of the origins of philosophy in Pentateuch asking: “What is Plato but Moses speaking Attic Greek?”69 Justin similarly claims that Plato took many ideas from Moses, especially on evil, fate, free will,70 and on the creation of the universe.71 He even found in Pentateuch the teaching about the triad of gods which was in a sense Trinitarian.72 Christian teaching is then something older than all the Greek writers who ever lived.73 It is also described as the restored philosophy of ancient times unfolded by various philosophical schools which deviated from the truth. Justin shows this clearly when he recounts his philosophical journey through various schools (Stoic, Peripatetic, Pythagorean, and Platonist), which ended in his conversion to Christianity – the true philosophy.74

It is significant that Platonism of young Justin, which could be seen in the famous scene of meditation by the sea, was corrected by the old man who used Moses and prophets, but the young Platonic was converted to Christianity, not Judaism.75 Christianity is truer than philosophy not only because it is older, but it is founded on true revelation of Christ whose teaching contains the true knowledge of God. Justin describes the Incarnation of Christ as theophany and epiphany, and also transforms some pagan models to describe it.76 Without doubt, he wants to show the Incarnated as the one who reveals and teaches the true knowledge of God that is proclaimed by Christians. Therefore, Justin, as well as other Apologists, claimed that the ← 32 | 33 → knowledge of God is possible and was very careful not to rely too much on using negative terms in showing how Christians know Him. Such an approach could be seen already in the Letter to Diognetus, where Christ is presented as the one who provides the knowledge of God: “For, who of men at all understood before His coming what God is?”77 Arguing against the accusations that Christians are atheists, Justin claims that it was Christ who taught them the true worship of true God.78

Nevertheless, there is one place where negative theology seemed to be indispensable. It helped to distinguish the true Christian God from the false pagan gods, which often appears in a wider perspective of the accusation that Christians are atheists and negative theology is used in the writings of Apologists almost exclusively in this context.79 The same accusation of atheism is for Justin not only an occasion to indicate Christ as the source of the knowledge of God, but also so-called Christian “atheism” is in fact the rejection of pagan deities, who are corruptible and in need of man’s care. On the contrary, the Christian God does not need any material offerings and is “called by no proper name.”80 Justin repeats this statement in Second Apology, but this time the lack of the proper name of God is derived from the fact that he is unbegotten:

“However, the Father of all has no given name, since he is unbegotten. For whoever is addressed by some name has as older than him the one who gave him the ← 33 | 34 → name. But ‘father’ and ‘god’ and ‘creator’ and ‘lord’ and ‘master’ are not names, but appellations derived from his beneficence and works.”81

Thus Justin claims that those words are mere expressions (προσρήσεις), and they rather describe the deeds and works of God (τῶν εὐποιϊῶν καὶ τῶν ἔργων). What is interesting in the context of the Arian controversy is that Justin clearly thinks that the term “unbegotten” has a strong negative meaning. The name “Christ” also refers to the one who is unknown:

“This name also has an unknown meaning, just as the designation ‘god’ is not a name but a notion implanted in the nature of human beings about something difficult to set forth.”82

Such a negative statement that name “Christ” has in fact an unknown significance (ἄγνωστον σημασίαν) is rather surprising when formulated by one of the Apologists, who want to defend the truth and fullness of Christian revelation. Although man cannot know its significance, it is somehow implanted in human nature as an opinion (ἔμφυτος τῇ φύσει τῶν ἀνθρώπων δόξα). Therefore, it is not of human origin and this opinion could be seen as an earlier formulation of the theory of names, which was the key doctrine of Anomeans during the Arian controversy.

It is not clear whether Justin builds negative theology here, or simply wants to refute the accusations aimed at Christian beliefs, but we can observe a similar pattern in the writings of other Apologists.83 Tatian argues that God is neither visible nor comprehensible by human skill, and he has no name; therefore, the Apologist is not willing to worship anything which is created by God (stars, elements), or by man (idols).84 The most systematic rejection of the accusation that Christians were atheists was ← 34 | 35 → presented by Athenagoras in his Plea for the Christians. He divides the answer to the charge into the consideration of theoretical and practical atheism.85 For him the charge of atheism is irrational since Christians distinguish God from matter and thus it can only be seen by reason.86 In such claims, Christians are in agreement with the philosophers, chiefly Pythagoras, who said that God was an “ineffable number,” and Plato, who also thought that the maker of the universe had been uncreated God.87 Such God must be perceived as “uncreated, impassible and indivisible; therefore, not consisting of parts.”88 Rejecting the accusations of practical atheism, he uses standard arguments that Christians do not worship idols because they are creations made by man. He also makes a distinction between the statues of gods and gods themselves, and claims that the gods of myths are perishable and, therefore, they cannot really exist.89 The gods worshiped by the Greeks are corporeal and, therefore, they have humanlike passions (such as anger and desires), whereas true God is incorporeal and free from passions.90 Athenagoras also uses the Stoic belief of final conflagration of all things, which results in the destruction of all material deities. As D.W. Palmer points out “negative theology is used to counter not only the gods of Greek myth, but also the philosophical interpretations of myth and Stoic religious philosophy.”91 The most interesting use of negative theology in the context of any possible knowledge of God is that of Theophilus of Antioch, who addressed his apology to pagan Autolycus. He asked Theophilus to describe to him God in whom he believes; therefore, he starts his discussion with the presentation of the Christian idea of deity. True God can be seen only by the man whose soul is pure, and the eyes of the soul can see only ← 35 | 36 → when the man is free from sin and evil deeds.92 God cannot be seen with the eyes of the flesh and, therefore, “the appearance of God is ineffable and indescribable.”93 But seeing Him through the eyes of the soul does not provide any positive knowledge: “For in glory He is incomprehensible, in greatness unfathomable, in height inconceivable, in power incomparable, in wisdom unrivalled, in goodness inimitable, in kindness unutterable.”94 If there is any knowledge which is possible, it can only be based on what is derived from God. Thus, Theophilus writes:

“For if I say He is Light, I name but His own work; if I call Him Word, I name but His sovereignty; if I call Him Mind, I speak but of His wisdom; if I say He is Spirit, I speak of His breath; if I call Him Wisdom, I speak of His offspring; if I call Him Strength, I speak of His sway; if I call Him Power, I am mentioning His activity (δύναμιν ἐάν εέπω, ἐνέργειαν αὐτοῦ λέγω); if Providence, I but mention His goodness; if I call Him Kingdom, I but mention His glory; if I call Him Lord, I mention His being judge; if I call Him Judge, I speak of Him as being just; if I call Him Father, I speak of all things as being from Him; if I call Him Fire, I but mention His anger.”95

Theophilus then testifies that at this early stage of Christian reflection on God to know His nature is possible through His attributes. He also seems to suggest that even the attributes of God are only vaguely known to us. We rather know how an attribute is connected with the corresponding activity in created world. Saying that God is light we rather say something about how it is visible in His works, calling Him word means rather His sovereignty, etc. Among those attributes, we also find the Power of God ← 36 | 37 → (δύναμις), which is known thanks to God’s activity (ἐνέργεια). Theophilus does not specify the kind of activity and does not explain what he means by this particular one. But it is important to note that like other enlisted attributes, activity is a comprehensible effect of the incomprehensible power of God. Theophilus repeats this in the fifth chapter and provides various metaphors to show that since human eyes cannot see the invisible God, He is beheld and perceived through His providence and works.96 Man cannot even look upon the Sun, so it is all the more difficult to see the glory of God.97 However, it is possible indirectly, like the existence of the soul, which can be recognized only by seeing the movements of the body. Similarly, seeing a ship sailing in the sea, one presumes that there is somebody who steers her. The government of the world and providence of God are also compared to an earthly ruler who is not seen by everybody, but everybody presumes his existence by his laws, ordinances, forces, and statues.98 The Apologist also provides a very interesting metaphor of a pomegranate, which is composed of the rind containing many cells with seeds inside. In the same manner, the whole universe is like those seeds contained in the spirit of God.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2018 (September)
Early Christian negative theology Cappadocian Fathers 4th-century Arian controversy Eunomius Basil the Great Gregory of Nyssa
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 254 pp.

Biographical notes

Tomasz Stępień (Author) Karolina Kochańczyk-Bonińska (Author)

Tomasz Stępień is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Theology, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw. He researches and publishes on Ancient Philosophy, Early Christian Philosophy, Natural Theology and Philosophy of Religion. Karolina Kochańczyk-Bonińska is Assistant Professor at the Institute of the Humanities and Social Sciences, War Studies University in Warsaw. She researches and publishes on Early Christian Philosophy and translates patristic texts.


Title: Unknown God, Known in His Activities