Return to Home Page



More than a thousand years after the birth of Christ, there arose the heresy of the scholastic Latin theologians, who wished to unite the philosophy of Aristotle with Christian theology. Nevertheless they did not imitate the holy teachers of the early Church, who made philosophy fit theology; but the Scholastics did the opposite, making the Gospel and the holy Christian faith fit the doctrines of the philosopher Aristotle. From this source there arose in the Latin Church so many heresies in the theology of the Holy Trinity, so many distortions of the words of the Gospels and the Apostles, so many violations of the sacred canons and the divine councils, and finally so many corruptions and adulterations of the holy sacraments.

Eustratios Argenti (1)


No-one has ever seen a saint leaving a lecture-room or a library.

Mother Gabriela

Gnoseology can be defined as the study of knowledge and our method of cognition, in plain English, the way in which we know about things, the method we use to know about and understand reality. Gnoseology takes very different forms in Orthodox societies from those found in modern Western, that is post-Orthodox, societies. What exactly are these differences?


Between the end of the eleventh century and the end of the twelfth, everything is changed in the West.

Fr Yves Congar

One of the clearest examples illustrating these differences in the discovery and application of knowledge is in the rise of Western universities.

Although universities existed in the pagan ('classical') world, under Orthodox Christian influence they gradually closed down in the first centuries after Christ, since they were not spiritually helpful (2). Thus, many of the greatest fourth-century saints studied at the old universities, but then moved on to higher things in the new monasteries. However, later saints, say of the eighth century, did not even study at universities, but went directly to the monasteries.

Orthodox Christians found that the centres for higher knowledge, the monasteries - for example the Monastery of St Sabbas in Jerusalem, or the aptly-named Studion Monastery in Constantinople - were far more appropriate for acquiring spiritual knowledge through the Holy Spirit than the old universities. In the early West too there were great centres of higher Christian study, for instance the monasteries at Bangor in Wales, at Iona in Scotland, at Lindisfarne and Canterbury in England, at Lerins in Gaul, at Toledo and Seville in Spain, at Rome and Cassino in Italy, to name but a few.

However, these monastic centres began to be supplanted in the West in the twelfth century by universities. The first was Bologna in Italy in 1150. This was followed by Paris in 1192, Oxford and Salerno in 1214, Toulouse in 1217, Salamanca in 1243, Seville in 1254, Cambridge in 1257, Montpellier in 1289, Orleans in 1306, Prague in 1348, Cracow in 1362, Heidelberg in 1386 and many others. The reason for the appearance of these universities was the great transformation of Western civilization which becomes clear in the twelfth century, but which can actually be traced back to the mid-eleventh century.


Rome preferred the abstract syllogism to Holy Tradition, which is the expression of the common mind of the whole Christian world, and in which that world coheres as a living and indissoluble unity. This exaltation of the syllogism over Tradition was in fact the sole basis for the rise of a separate and independent Rome. . .Rome left the Church because she desired to introduce into the faith new dogmas, unknown to Holy Tradition, dogmas which were by nature the accidental products of Western logic.

Ivan Kireyevsky (3)

This transformation has many names, but it involves the following shifts in thought and way of life:

From God to Man.
From Knowledge of the Creator to Knowledge of the Creation.

From Knowledge of God to Knowledge about God.
From Theology to Philosophy.

From Grace to Law.
From Prayer to God to Conversation with Man.

From Monasteries to Universities.
From Living Experience to Academic Scholasticism.

From Wisdom to Science.
From the Heart to the Reason.

This last change is of vital significance. The movement away from the heart was the movement away from the Biblical and Patristic understanding of the heart as the place where God and man communicate, from the nous, as the Greek Church Fathers expressed it (4). In Post-Orthodox society, its place was taken by the brain, the discursive reason, or dianoia in Greek. Instead, the word heart came to mean the emotional centre of man. As a result post-Orthodox piety was expressed either in the form of discursive reason, dry scholastic philosophy, or else in the form of emotional outpouring, meditation, sentimentalism, imagination, fantasy, romanticism, illusion. These emotions typify the 'mystical' pietism of the Western Middle Ages and later Protestant revivalism.

This development was the exact opposite of the sober experience of all the Church Fathers. They considered that the human mind and emotions were unable to express truths regarding the Creator. In their view, when used to seek the knowledge of God, the human mind and emotions could only express human illusion, what the Greek ascetics called plani, the Latin ascetics illusio (5), and the Slavic ascetics prelest.

For the Orthodox Tradition, any kind of meditative emotion and imagination lead to illusory psychic phenomena. It was these which in the post-Orthodox West came to be called 'mysticism'. This is in contrast to the sobriety of the Orthodox Christian experience of grace. For us, emotion and imagination lead to delusion, the illusions of self-flattery, in which the victims believe that they are already saints, already 'saved', and all human abilities and achievements are idolized and deified. Man becomes God. This whole philosophy, called humanism, is in stark contrast to the God-Manhood, 'Theanthropy', or 'Logosness', of the Orthodox Christian understanding of reality. As one fifteenth-century Orthodox writer, Iosefos Bryennios, put it:

Those who subject the dogmas of the faith to chains of syllogistic reasoning strip of its divine glory the very faith that they strive to defend. They force us to believe no longer in God but in man. Aristotle and his philosophy have nothing in common with the truths revealed by Christ (6).


You are a disciple not of the Fathers but of the pagan Greeks. If I wished, I too could produce syllogisms to answer your sophistic reasonings - and better syllogisms than yours at that. But such methods of argument I reject, and take my proofs from the Fathers and their writings. You will answer me with Aristotle or Plato or one of your modern teachers; but to oppose you I will invoke the fishermen of Galilee, with their simple preaching and their true wisdom which to you seems foolishness.

St Symeon of Thessaloniki (7)

None of the above means that post-Orthodox gnoseology is wrong in itself. It is wrong only when it is applied to seeking knowledge of God, which it is unable to do, or when its results are misapplied. If it is applied to seeking knowledge of the Creation and the resultant technology, or 'know-how', is used for the glory of God and the good of mankind, then that gnoseology is positive. In other words although it cannot teach us about the Creator, it can teach us about Creation and that knowledge of Creation can be put to good use.

Post-Orthodox gnoseology can teach us how to dissect Creation, analyzing it and breaking it down into its components, building-blocks, elements (all modern scientific terms) which we can use for our benefit. For instance, post-Orthodox gnoseology revealed to Mendeleyev the periodic table of the elements, it has given us the technology to build steam-engines and computers, to understand the structure of the atom, it has enables us to digitalize sound and image and then reproduce it.

As we have said, all this knowledge is useful only if we wish to use it for the glory of God and human benefit. All post-Orthodox gnoseology, the understanding of the contents of the Universe, of Creation, can also be used for our perdition and destruction, as with dynamite, the machine-gun, the gas-chamber, the Atom Bomb, or chemical and nuclear pollution and the poisoning and pillaging of the natural world. Only our primary concern, Orthodox gnoseology, can teach us how to apply our secondary concern, post-Orthodox gnoseology, correctly. In simple terms, without spiritual understanding, technical understanding will always be misapplied.

As we have said above, post-Orthodox gnoseology is unable to understand the Creator. One may have the know-how to create incredibly powerful telescopes and microscopes and examine Creation with them, to build and programme a computer, or to understand the atom. However, none of this means that we are at all competent to understand the Creator, to attain the Divine Light or to know how to acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit in the Divine Energies. Only Orthodox gnoseology can help in this respect.


All that we have said about the great Christian Mysteries is not an opinion of our own (if it were an opinion of our own it would be worth nothing), but it is the repeated experience of the Apostles in the ancient days and of the saints up to our own days. For the Church of God lives not on opinion, but on the experience of the saints, as in the beginning, so in our days. The opinions of intellectual persons may be wonderfully clever and yet be false, whereas the experience of the saints is always true. It is God the Lord who is true to Himself in his saints.

St Nicholas of Zhicha (8)

Although it is true that you cannot understand atomic structure by living the ascetic life, it is also true that you cannot understand how to attain purity of heart in a university, and without purity of heart you cannot understand how to apply correctly the understanding of atomic structure. Thus we can understand that the knowledge of the world is only useful when it is correctly applied to the world, to created things. However, the knowledge of God is useful, not only when it is applied to God the Creator, but also when it is applied to Creation.

This is why, for example, some of the world's greatest perverts and atheists, from Stalin to Kazantzakis or Jesuit pedophiles, have come out of studies of academic subjects, including university 'theology'. They studied academic 'theology', but did not pray, live and experience it. Without an understanding of the Creator obtained in the heart by grace through ascetic life, we will not know how to apply the knowledge of Creation obtained in a university.

In the words of the old Russian proverb: 'Our primary school is the family; our secondary school is the parish; our university is the monastery'. Unlike post-Orthodox, 'Western' culture, which is the culture of the brain or reason, our Orthodox culture is essentially the culture of the heart, the culture of the saints. Unlike the 'Western' culture of the reason, 'dianetic', rationalist culture, Orthodox culture is the culture of the spirit, it is 'noetic', spiritual culture. And it is time for any Orthodox who has not yet understood that to wake up!


1. The words of this 18th century Greek theologian are quoted in Scholasticism and Theology: Theological Method as a Factor in the Schism, by his biographer Fr Kallistos Ware, in Eastern Churches Review, V, 1 (1973). Another writer on this theme is the modern Greek philosopher Christos Yannaras.

2. A similar fate was shared by the pagan Olympic Games, which were only revived in our neo-pagan times, with their billions of dollars, 'performance-enhancing' drugs, women in states of undress, bisexuality and huge numbers of brothels for the use of contestants and spectators alike.

3. Collected Works, Vol. 1 (Moscow 1911), P. 226.

4. The word nous has been translated by the Latin term intellect in English. However, without specific qualification, this could be very misleading because of the associations of the modern words intellect and intellectual. These associations symbolize the spiritual degeneration of the modern West, as it confuses the use of the discursive reason ('intellect') with the understanding of the heart ('nous'). Generally nous can be translated as spirit or eye of the soul, or heart, but again only with qualification. The adjective noetic can variously be translated as spiritual, heavenly, invisible, but sometimes, like nous, may need to remain untranslated. Something similar appears to be happening to the word spirit and also spirituality which are now frequently used to mean the fallen and sinful human spirit, and paganism - 'pagan spirituality' (sic). Orthodox spirituality is inconceivable outside the Church, hence the Russian word 'tserkovnost', literally 'churchness', which mean Orthodox spiritual practice. Modern Western languages can be very impoverished when it comes to expressing Christian spirituality.

5. For example in the Conferences of St John Cassian. Certain Eastern Orthodox writers appear not to realize that this term was used by the Latin Orthodox ascetics, and that there is no need to use the terms plani or prelest, there is a perfectly Orthodox Western term.

6. Quoted in Ware, op.cit. P.21.

7. Adv. Omn. Haer, 29 (MPG clv, col. 140BC)

8. Quoted in Ware, op.cit. P.20.

to top of page