Against the Depiction of Him Whom No Man Has Seen
(Copyright 2003. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the author.)
Excerpted from "Forbidden Images," by Dr. George S. Gabriel, Copyright 1989, 2002.
For readers of the Bible, the "prima facie" categories in connection with the identity of the Ancient of Days in the book of Daniel (7:13-14) can pose a major obstacle to an Orthodox understanding of the Prophet's unique narration of his vision of God.
We cannot begin to understand this or any prophetic vision unless we first understand that we cannot read about the revelations or "visions" of the Uncreated that were experienced by the Prophets as if these visions were precisely scripted and staged scenes for the theater. Therefore, we cannot also demand that they be completely comprehensible and consistent with human categories, human facts, human presumptions, human criteria, ordinary human experience, and earthly dimensions of time and space. In their experience of theoria or theoptia, the Prophets beheld the uncreated glory of God with spiritual eyes and not with the bodily eyes and cerebral mind that are bound by the above categories and dimensions. In their divinization by grace, they were taken by God into His uncreated energies of the divine foreknowledge and will. What they "saw" or experienced in the théosis that accompanies God's visitation is divine revelation. Hence, divine revelation is empirical knowledge of the Kingdom (Vasileía in Greek) which is the power, rule, reign, and will of God. It is in this Kingdom that God visits and communes with His true friends. When the Prophets wrote about these uncreated mysteries, however, they used words and symbols according to the purpose of divine providence for their audience. Strictly speaking, therefore, the Scriptures are not the revelation itself, the experience of the Uncreated; rather, they are words about the revelation. These words expressed the revelation in various forms and symbols according to the time and ability of the children of Israel to receive the meaning of the revelation. The symbols and words cannot be subjected to spatial concepts and time and sequence as we know them.
The Disciples who were with the Savior on Mt. Thabor "saw" His uncreated glory, "as they were able" each according to his capacity to receive this uncreated light. This is the same divine kingdom or rule which Christ says "is within you." The kingdom is also called by the Fathers both divine light and divine darkness (phos and gnophos), among other mutually contradictory terms, in order to indicate by these expressions the apophatic theology of Orthodoxy and the unknowability of the Uncreated by rational and intellectual comprehension. The experience in theoria is suprarational and ineffable. Descriptions of it, such as the Scriptures, for example, use words, and words are already created symbols since the experience itself cannot be transmitted.
There is no place here for legalistic and rationalistic definitions. When Jacob said he beheld a ladder with God standing above it, the Fathers tell us he saw the Virgin through whom Yahweh the Lord of Glory was to come to earth in the flesh. But Jacob's vision is not expressed in such literal terms but in symbols or images because the time was not yet come when the people and the world would be prepared and ready to receive this literal knowledge. Types and images were used for future Prophets, Fathers, and generations to understand them in the unfolding fullness of time.
Moses was taken into the uncreated fire or light, into the uncreated energies of God's foreknowledge and eternal will, and he "saw" the Virgin and Child when he was at the bush on Sinai. He described a flaming but unconsumed bush, expressing by this image, for the fuller understanding of future generations, the Virgin containing the Uncontainable God in her womb. In the eternal will and foreknowledge of God, He "saw" the Incarnation and described it for us as a burning bush that contained the miraculous Uncreated Fire but remained unharmed by it. Daniel and Isaiah and Moses and all the Prophets "saw" this economy of the Incarnation. Hence, Moses, for example, was able to scorn all the riches and glory proper to a son of Pharaoh in preference for even the reproaches of Christ, as St. Paul tells us. Isaiah saw God in the flesh carried invisibly on a throne. The word throne is in Isaiah's writing, but in his vision in the uncreated energies of God was the Virgin carrying the Lord of Glory in her womb, as several hymns of the Church tells us. The Prophets saw the Lord prefiguring His Incarnation centuries before the historic reality of the Incarnation took place. Since it was in the mind of God, in the foreknowledge and will of God, in the uncreated energies of God, that they beheld Christ, He was not coming into and out of His enfleshing upon each such theophany, now taking flesh and bone and now shedding them. The theophanies were not stagings and restagings of the Savior's enfleshing.
Daniel's vision of the Ancient of Days receiving the likeness of a son of man (7:13-14) is not a vision of the Ascension of the Son of God as some believe, but of the Incarnation, of the Aged or Ancient One receiving the nature of humanity. The two human forms in Daniel's vision were bodily types or images expressing what was yet to come. For the Prophets, what was yet to come in Israel's history was the Nativity of the Incarnate Lord of Glory, Whose glory the Prophets beheld, as John the Theologian says: "These things said Isaiah when he saw His glory and spoke of Him." Even the few Fathers, such as St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Ammonius, who seem to interpret the Ancient of Days as God the Father, understand the whole vision to be of the Incarnate economy and fullness of power, glory, and honor from the Father that belongs to the enfleshed Son of God. "In the likeness of the son of man, Daniel foresees the Incarnation of the Only-Begotten One." (St. Ammonius, PG 85, 1380A) In fact, it is far from conclusive that St Cyril actually identifies the Ancient of days with the Father. (See St. Cyril of Alexandria, PG 70, 1461B.) St. Athanasius gives a more precise meaning to "coming like [a] son of man" (Dan. 7:13) and says, "For it is His humanity that Daniel names son of man." (Epistle to Antiochus)
Daniel encountered one Person and represented Him by two forms, young and old, as St. Maximus says. The Prophet's dream or "night vision" in 7:13-14 becomes one of the most enigmatic and shadowy of all the prophetic narratives when it is taken as a vision seen with bodily eyes or as a dream formed in the cells of the brain. It cannot be understood literally, that is, by identifying as one Person the form which was "like a son of man" and the Ancient of Days as yet another Person. "We know, then, that no man can see the nature of God, or of angels, or of the soul, or of the demons. Divine providence, however, confers types and forms and images upon all these so that, through noetic, immaterial vision, they may be seen in bodily forms like our own nature." (John of Damascus, 3rd Homily on the Divine Images, Ch. 25)
The Prophets saw these figures "in the glory of God." (Ez. 2:1; Num. 12:8) "After this invisible manner did they see the Son of God as a man...saying that He Who was not come as yet was present." (Irenaeus, Refutation, Bk. 4, Ch. 20) In this manner, Daniel, too, saw the "ancient" Son of God receiving to Himself the "likeness of man," that is to say, receiving human nature and becoming the Son of Man while remaining one and the same Person. Daniel called Him ancient because He is older than, and preexists, the "days" or ages. The Prophets and the Fathers often use the word ancient to mean eternal. The two words are interchangeable, and not only ancient and eternal but also young and eternal, clearly confounding literalistic and rationalistic categories.
The adjective "ancient," which means "eternal," then, applies equally to the divinity and to the white-haired humanity of the Ancient of Days: to the divinity because of its eternal nature, and to the elderly humanity because of the ontological mystery of the Incarnation "hidden from before the ages" but operating in all the theophanies of God. St. Maximus the Confessor expresses the consensus and doctrine of the Church that Christ appeared to the Prophets both as white haired and aged and as a young man. St. Maximus gives us to understand that because of the ontological and eternal mystery of the Incarnation, the indivisible, composite hypostasis of the Incarnate Lord is called both "young" and "ancient" without dividing or mixing His natures. This is in complete agreement with the patristic dictum that icons are images of persons or hypostases according to their nature and not of their nature. The icon of the Theotokos, for example, is not an icon of her human nature, which is the nature common to all of us, but of Mary, the unique and irreplicable human person. We make icons neither of the human nor of the divine nature but of persons according to the creaturely nature possessed as their own.
What has been said here about the Prophets' and Fathers' empirical theology and theoria holds for all revelation because, in its essence, revelation is not the contemplation of data but of God in the uncreated glory of the Person of the Logos and Son of God, Who alone declares the Father to men, and through Whom alone man comes unto Father. The kingdom in which the Prophets saw these visions was not of this created world and its created dimensions of time and space. The functions and needs of time-bound creation are outside of this experience. To better understand the Person of the Ancient of Days, readers can study both the book of Daniel (Chs. 7-12) and the book of Revelation (Ch. 1) and examine side by side Daniel's description of the Ancient of Days and St. John's apocalyptic description of Christ as the white-haired Alpha and Omega. They will see that the authors of these Old and New Testament books of Revelation are speaking of the same Person, using the same language, words, and symbols.
Dan. 7: 9-11 describe the Ancient of Days in images and symbol and tell us that He presides at the Final Judgment: "The thrones were set and the Ancient of Days took His seat...His raiment was white as snow, and the hair of His head as pure wool [fleece]...His throne was a flame of fire...A river of fire rushed before Him..." The Savior says, "The Father has given all judgment to the Son." (Jn. 5:22) The Son of God and the Ancient of Days are the same Person. And in Revelation, John saw someone "like a son of man...And His head and His hair were white as wool [fleece], as white as snow." (1:10,14) And He said, "I am the first and the last, He that liveth and was dead, and behold I am alive forever more, and I have the keys of death and Hades." (1:17-19) Further examination shows that both Prophets, Daniel and John, describe His garment and belt, and His voice as the "sound of many waters" in precisely the same words. And Daniel says the Ancient of Days slew the wild beast. St. Paul says Christ "will slay the lawless one with the breath of His mouth." (2Thes. 2:8) Whether you say the breath of His mouth, or the river of fire, you say the same thing.