When There’s More Zeal than Knowledge

For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God,
but not according to knowledge.
Romans 10:2 (NKJV)

In Romans, St. Paul grieves that his people have no shortage of zeal, but that their zeal is not according to knowledge. What is this knowledge of which he speaks?

The Greek word is ἐπίγνωσιν (epignosis), and it often refers to a knowledge of God. The word appears many times in the New Testament:

[I pray] that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, (Eph. 1:17).

 Here we see that knowledge of God comes through wisdom and revelation, which is God making himself known to us.

 Until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness (Eph. 4:13).

 In Ephesians, knowledge of God is equated to spiritual maturity, and growing into the fullness of who we are destined to be in Christ.

So that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God (Col. 1:10).

Here we see bearing fruit, that is, living virtuously, is set side-by-side with growing in the knowledge of God. After all, how can we possibly know God if we are unlike him? Our Lord says,

And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent (Jn. 17:3).

Here he gives the definition of salvation. It’s not saying a certain prayer, or membership in a certain place, it is knowledge of God. Fortunately,

[God our Savior] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4).

And truth is Christ himself (cf. Jn. 14:6). So knowledge of truth is knowledge of God which is salvation.

Hopefully this helps us see why heresy is so evil. God is truth, we can come to know God, and knowing God is our salvation. If we portray God incorrectly, if we misidentify him, if we choose something other than truth, then we are worshipping an idol.

For that reason, the Church has always struggled to remove heresy from its members – or to remove the members that stubbornly insist upon their heresies.

But let’s return to our text. St. Paul speaks of people who have much zeal for God but very little knowledge. As Abp. Dimitri (Royster) points out in his commentary on Romans, we see that even today in Orthodoxy (pg. 257).

Whether it regards fasting, the calendar, the way converts are received, the way people cross themselves, the way a service is celebrated (its strictness according to the Typikon), the way the priest preaches, the political ideas of other Church members, or the words and behavior of hierarchs – there are zealous critics everywhere!

Often, those who are most insistent upon correctness (the “super-correct,” as Fr. Seraphim Rose called them), lack spiritual knowledge. They understand outward rubrics, they have a keen eye for criticizing others, but they rarely see their own faults.

Frequently, this zeal for correcting others is due to an interior life that is falling apart. These men and women feel helpless to fix themselves, so they focus on fixing others.

Orthodoxy, with all its outward strictness and piety, tends to attract such individuals. Therefore, those of us who are drawn to Orthodoxy must always check ourselves in these matters. Most likely, we were drawn because of a zeal for God, for truth, and/or for proper worship of God. When we see other people falling short of the ideal, we almost view it as a betrayal. There are entire internet groups who thrive on this kind of criticism. Those who struggle to stay on the narrow path – between legalism and laxity – are referred to as “normiedox.”

But that’s exactly what we need to be: normal. Not normal in a worldly sense, not adhering to the culture’s values. But instead, avoiding the extremes of both legalism and laxity. Neither path leads to the salvific knowledge of God. Legalism turns us into zealous persecutors of the Church, and laxity into useless cowards.

Through the Prophet Hosea, our God laments, “My people perish because of a lack of knowledge” (Hos. 4:6). But this lack of knowledge is avoidable if we focus our efforts on improving ourselves spiritually rather than our neighbor. St. Basil said that the greatest of all sciences is to know ourselves (Hexameron, Homily 9) – one of the reasons being that repentance is impossible without self-knowledge.

St. Paisios the Athonite once said,

“If you want to help the Church, it is better to try to correct yourself, rather than looking to correct others. If you manage to correct yourself, one small part of the Church is immediately corrected. Naturally, if everyone did the same, the body of the Church would be in good health. But, today, people concern themselves with anything but themselves. You see, judging others is easy, whereas working on yourself takes effort.”

We look forward to the eschaton, the End, when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). But there is much work to do between now and then. And it’s best I start with myself.

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