“For the man in Christ, the antinomies of the mind are not irreconcilable opposites; they are simply ruptures caused by the upheaval of original sin in man.
Uniting himself to Christ, man feels in himself a coming-together of fragmented parts, a healing of the intellect, a wholeness and integration that make him capable of integrated understanding.”
-from The Theory of Knowledge According to St. Isaac the Syrian
St. Isaac’s gnoseology held that there were three degrees of knowledge in ascending order of importance.
The First Degree ranges from our animal appetites up to our rational skills in the arts and sciences and is concerned solely with our knowledge of the created material universe. This is a true and useful degree of knowledge yet it is incomplete in itself. It is a serious diminishment of our powers of knowing to remain there as if it were an explanation of everything. When a man is captive to this First Degree of Knowledge he may live like a beast only for his passions or, if he is more intellectual, he may opt for scientism as many skeptics today do. This First Degree of Knowledge, being the study of the created, is also wholly unconcerned with the Uncreated, or God. Just as the skeptic is in error when he makes Naturalism the sum of all knowledge, the theist is in error when he complains that this or that scientific hypothesis or Theory does not invoke God as a Cause. St. Isaac considers this knowledge “below nature” in the sense that we are called to higher degrees of knowledge if we are to fulfill our spiritual destiny.
The Second Degree of Knowledge involves our reason and logic in things like metaphysics, philosophy, ethics. It is the power to make deductions and syllogisms about the existence of God and His invisible attributes, it is the knowledge of virtues and vices, good and evil insofar as these can be rationally known through the psyche. This is also a good form of knowledge and is even more important for us as humans made in God’s Image than the First Degree is. St. Isaac calls this our “natural knowledge”.
The Third Degree of Knowledge is the highest of all and is “above nature”. It is the knowledge we gain from the nous (the spiritual faculty of knowing). It is not something we can arrive at naturally or through the unaided intellect. It is knowing God through the experience of God. Whereas in the Second Degree of Knowledge we may deliberate about being virtuous in a situation, in the Third Degree we do not deliberate but simply do the Good. All our actions and knowing when we exercise the Third Degree of Knowledge by grace is simply the outflow of love for God and neighbor.
St. Isaac of Nineveh sees the three degrees of knowledge as corresponding to the three parts of our being: body, soul, and spirit.
The First Degree of Knowledge is concerned with the physical world around us, which is what science studies and with which the arts are concerned. This corresponds to the body.
The Second Degree of Knowledge is concerned with ethics and Logic and abstract reasoning which corresponds to our rational intellect or psyche in Greek.
The Third Degree of Knowledge is concerned with the Uncreated which we can only know by experience and grace. Here the knowledge of the existence of God can be what philosopher Alvin Plantinga has called “a properly basic belief” needing no rational demonstrations. This type of knowledge corresponds to our spirit, or spiritual intellect, in Greek the nous.
An effect of having partaken of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (whether we take this story literally or more symbolically) is that we are completely cut off from the Third Degree of Knowledge outside of God taking the initiative in Christ to illuminate us as we are willing to receive His grace. As well, our individual perceptions of the first two degrees of knowledge are clouded and confused. Which is why we need more objective epistemologies if we are to gain trustworthy knowledge. For the First Degree of Knowledge this highlights the importance of the various scientific methods which negate our personal prefences and temperances and subjectivity. For the Second Degree of Knowledge our objective standard is the interpretation of Scripture and Tradition as held always, everywhere and by all (the Vincentian canon) in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of historical Christianity.
May we all be richly blessed in all three degrees of knowledge in Christ who Himself is the Wisdom of God and the Logos.
The full paper from which the quote at the top of the page is gleaned can be found on Scribd here: