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Letter 235 (St. Basil)

To the same [Amphilochius], in answer to another question.

1. Which is first in order, knowledge or faith? I reply that generally, in the case of disciples, faith precedes knowledge. But, in our teaching, if any one asserts knowledge to come before faith, I make no objection ; understanding knowledge so far as is within the bounds of human comprehension. In our lessons we must first believe that the letter a is said to us; then we learn the characters and their pronunciation, and last of all we get the distinct idea of the force of the letter. But in our belief about God, first comes the idea that God is. This we gather from His works. For, as we perceive His wisdom, His goodness, and all His invisible things from the creation of the world, so we know Him. So, too, we accept Him as our Lord. For since God is the Creator of the whole world, and we are a part of the world, God is our Creator. This knowledge is followed by faith, and this faith by worship.

2. But the word¬†knowledge¬†has many meanings, and so those who make sport of simpler minds, and like to make themselves remarkable by astounding statements (just like jugglers who get the balls out of sight before men’s very eyes), hastily included everything in their general enquiry. Knowledge, I say, has a very wide application, and¬†knowledge¬†may be got of what a thing is, by number, by bulk, by force, by its mode of¬†existence, by the period of its generation, by its¬†essence. When then our opponents include the whole in their question, if they catch us in the confession that we¬†know, they straightway demand from us¬†knowledge¬†of the¬†essence; if, on the contrary, they see us cautious as to making any assertion on the subject, they affix on us the stigma of impiety. I, however, confess that I¬†know¬†what is knowable of¬†God, and that I¬†know¬†what it is which is beyond my comprehension. So if you ask me if I¬†know¬†what sand is, and I reply that I do, you will obviously be¬†slandering¬†me, if you straightway ask me the number of the sand; inasmuch as your first enquiry bore only on the form of sand, while your second unfair objection bore upon its number. The quibble is just as though any one were to say, Do you¬†know¬†Timothy? Oh, if you¬†know¬†Timothy you¬†know¬†his nature. Since you have acknowledged that you¬†know¬†Timothy, give me an account of Timothy’s nature. Yes; but I at the same time both¬†know¬†and do not¬†know¬†Timothy, though not in the same way and in the same degree. It is not that I do not¬†know¬†in the same way in which I do¬†know; but I¬†know¬†in one way and am¬†ignorant¬†in one way. I¬†know¬†him according to his form and other properties; but I am¬†ignorant¬†of his¬†essence. Indeed, in this way too, I both¬†know, and am¬†ignorant¬†of, myself. I¬†know¬†indeed who I am, but, so far as I am¬†ignorant¬†of my¬†essence¬†I do not¬†know¬†myself.

3. Let them tell me in what sense¬†Paul¬†says,¬†Now we know in part¬†(1 Corinthians 13:9);¬†do we¬†know¬†His¬†essence¬†in part, as¬†knowing¬†parts of His¬†essence? No. This is absurd; for God is without parts. But do we¬†know¬†the whole¬†essence? How then¬†When that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part shall be done away¬†(1 Corinthians 13:10).¬†Why are idolaters found fault with? Is it not because they¬†knew¬†God and did not¬†honour¬†Him as God? Why are the¬†foolish Galatians (Galatians 3:1)¬†reproached by¬†Paul¬†in the words,¬†After that you have¬†known¬†God, or rather are¬†known¬†of¬†God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements? (Galatians 4:9)¬†How was God¬†known¬†in Jewry? Was it because in Jewry it was¬†known¬†what His¬†essence¬†is?¬†The ox,¬†it is said,¬†knows his owner¬†(Isaiah 1:3).¬†According to your argument the ox¬†knows¬†his lord’s¬†essence.¬†And the ass his master’s crib¬†(Isaiah 1:3).¬†So the ass¬†knows¬†the¬†essence¬†of the crib, but¬†Israel¬†does not¬†know¬†me.¬†So, according to you,¬†Israel¬†is found fault with for not¬†knowing¬†what the¬†essence¬†of God is.¬†Pour out your¬†wrath¬†upon the¬†heathen¬†that have not¬†known¬†you,¬†that is, who have not comprehended your¬†essence. But, I repeat,¬†knowledge¬†is manifold ‚ÄĒ it involves perception of our Creator, recognition of His¬†wonderful works, observance of His commandments and intimate communion with Him. All this they thrust on one side and force¬†knowledge¬†into one single meaning, the¬†contemplation¬†of God’s¬†essence. You shall put them, it is said, before the testimony and I shall be¬†known¬†of you thence. Is the term,¬†I shall be¬†known¬†of you,¬†instead of,¬†I will reveal my¬†essence?¬†The Lord knows them that are his¬†(2 Timothy 2:19).¬†Does He¬†know¬†the¬†essence¬†of them that are His, but is¬†ignorant¬†of the¬†essence¬†of those who disobey Him?¬†Adam knew his wife¬†(Genesis 4:1).¬†Did he¬†know¬†her¬†essence? It is said of Rebekah¬†She was a virgin, neither had any man known her¬†(Genesis 24:16),¬†and¬†How shall this be seeing I know not a man?¬†(Luke 1:34)¬†Did no man¬†know¬†Rebekah’s¬†essence? Does Mary mean¬†I do not know the essence of any man?¬†Is it not the custom of Scripture to use the word¬†know¬†of nuptial embraces? The statement that God shall be¬†known¬†from the mercy seat means that He will be¬†known¬†to His worshippers. And the Lord¬†knows¬†them that are His, means that on account of their good works He receives them into intimate communion with Him.

Source. Translated by Blomfield Jackson. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 8. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895.)