An Orthodox Theory of Knowledge: The Epistemological and Apologetic Methods of the Church Fathers, by Rev. Deacon Dr. Ananias Sorem
“When God was conversing with Moses, He did not say ‘I am the essence’, but ‘I am the One Who is.’ Thus it is not the One Who is who derives from the essence, but essence which derives from Him, for it is He who contains all being in Himself.” – St. Gregory Palamas, Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts.
Continuing now with a synopsis of Fr. Sorem’s essay, he begins with a critique of Natural Theology – defined as inquiry into the existence and attributes of God without appeal to divine revelation as exemplified by St. Thomas Aquinas who pursued reason in justification of faith. Fr. Sorem disputes the rationale of this approach since reason cannot be validated except by reason itself – i.e. circular arguments that beg the question of reason’s trustworthiness. In short, God’s ontology precedes and transcends any possible epistemology, and thus faith trumps reason.
The next portion of the essay distills down to a critique of the two basic approaches used by philosophers to determine truth, Foundationalism and Coherentism. In Fr. Sorem’s opinion, foundationalism – the basing of truth on a foundation of unquestionable assertions – invariably fails as all assertions are contingent, even presumably self-evident ones. For him, purportedly self-evident truths still depend on the use of reason to demonstrate they are self-evident, and reason can never be validated independent of reason itself. Meanwhile coherentism – the justification of knowledge based on a web of internally consistent data points and beliefs – fails in his opinion because of the unreliability of sensory data, contaminating theories, and its ultimate dependence on unverifiable foundational beliefs. Therefore neither foundationalism nor coherentism can be deployed in the proof of God’s existence or nature.5
Fr. Sorem offers the alternative of a transcendental argument of God’s existence. My oversimplified and restated version of his more complex proof follows6:
- Truth and knowledge cannot be justified in the absence of God (i.e by unverifiable human reason alone).
- Truth and knowledge (necessarily) exist.
- Therefore God (necessarily) exists.
At his juncture he inserts tenets of the Orthodox religion that complement the logical arguments above. Since unaided human reason is incapable of determining its own legitimacy and the divine functions as the originating force of knowledge and truth, a bridge is needed between man and God. A quote from St. Justin Popovich fills this gap:
“[T]he power of Truth, from the other side, responds to the powerlessness of man on this side. Transcendent Truth crosses the gulf, arrives on our side of it and reveals Itself – Himself – in the person of Christ, the God-man. In Him transcendent Truth becomes immanent in man. The God-man reveals the truth in and through Himself. He reveals it not through thought or reason, but by the life that is His. He not only has the truth, He is Himself the Truth. In Him, Being and Truth are one…”7
In Fr. Sorem’s opinion, only the Eastern Orthodox Church (as opposed to Western Catholicism and Protestantism) has preserved the correct doctrine that “God (the necessary condition) is rational, omniscient, transcendent, non-contingent (necessary), intentional in His creation (as opposed to creation being accidental) a personal and communal being … having divine uncreated energies distinct from the common essence, who becomes incarnate as the God-man (the only one that can bridge the epistemic gap) sends His Holy Spirit to illumine and solve man’s epistemic predicament, and reveals these truths to His Apostles…”8
His essay ends on a discussion of presuppositional apologetics, which rejects the usual apologist stance that one can deploy a neutral, autonomous epistemology or logic to prove the existence of God and justify faith. “God is the ultimate epistemological starting point…”9 He concludes that one needs the entire system of orthodox Christianity to validate knowledge and truth, and that man’s epistemic autonomy is ultimately “pretended.”
In the next post I will offer my critique of Fr. Sorem’s essay. Join me then.
5 Nor we presume the Five Ways of Aquinas. This is of course an extremely abbreviated explanation of Fr. Sorem’s very erudite composition and logic, but I believe it outlines fairly his attempt to demonstrate that Western philosophical reasoning is not a valid means to justify faith.
6I ask for leniency to those more familiar with advanced logic theory, and from Fr. Sorem for completely changing the format of his argument. It is possible I have misinterpreted his thinking, but I have attempted to remain faithful to the spirit of his logic.
8Ibid., page 16.
9Ibid., page 17.