October 13, 2015

The Core Theological Message of St. Symeon the New Theologian

By George Martzelos

It is clear that the experience of the vision of God, as it is experienced in the vision of divine light, is for Symeon the ultimate criterion and the cornerstone of Orthodox theology and spirituality. For him, without the vision of God there is no Orthodox theology nor true spiritual life, and therefore the Church cannot exist nor fulfill its mission. Because for him, as well as the entire patristic tradition, Orthodox theology and spirituality is not contemplative nor intellectual, but it is eminently empirical and existential in character which is based on the personal experience of the vision of God within the ecclesiastical body. It is a transcendental and ecstatic experience, organically associated with the most important mysteries of the Church - the mysteries of Baptism, Repentance and the Divine Eucharist - and it is otherwise not experienced except through the fruit of purification, illumination and secret communion with Christ in the light of the Holy Spirit. In this light Christ appears as light and reveals to believers His heavenly Father, making them partakers and shareholders of the glory of His divinity and are given the position of being gods by grace. In other words, when developing his teaching of the vision of God, the theology of Symeon is not unilaterally Christocentric, but simultaneously Pneumatocentric and Triadocentric.

But it is characteristic that, although Symeon strongly emphasizes the need for the vision of God for the secret spiritual life of the believer, as well as for the spiritual reality and life of the Church, what is of paramount importance for him is the secret communion and union with God, namely theosis, which makes the vision of God a realization and experience. In other words, the vision of God is not separated from secret communion with God and theosis. This is why the vision of God and theosis are inextricably and functionally tied together and virtually identical in the thought of Symeon.

This inextricable and functional relationship between the vision of God as the vision of divine light and theosis, which is the basic element in the teaching of Symeon on the vision of God, along with other elements that compose his teaching, were cultivated and developed three centuries later by St. Gregory Palamas, who so much admired the life and teaching of St. Symeon, that he called his writings "living books". In this sense, the contribution of this teaching of Symeon in the development of the theology of Gregory Palamas and hesychastic theology in general was immense.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.