Phronema III: Is Conscience the Cornerstone?

Phronema is a Greek term that is used in Orthodox theology to refer to mindset or outlook; it is the Orthodox mind. The attaining of phronema is a matter of practicing the correct faith (orthodoxia) in the correct manner (orthopraxia — Praxis being defined as the overall lifestyle of members of the Orthodox Church.)  Attaining phronema is regarded as the first step toward theosis, the state of glorification which is (at least as far as possible in this world) a recovery of the original nature of man made in the image and likeness of God.

Phronema refers to “the completely self-sacrificial trust and faith in religious and ethical truths… from the voice of God…. an unshakeable certainty about the truth of Faith… undiminished and vibrant throughout life, a continually verified daily experience,” “a growing feeling for and understanding of God’s and the practice of Orthodox piety—Orthodox Worship and behavior.”  The phronema is vested in tradition “against all heresies and schisms of all times”. The “mind of the Fathers” is also termed phronema as is the “mind of the Church” and “the mind of Christ.”      (adapted from

Firstly, we must clarify what ‘phronema’ is, being of course the most central presupposition that defines the position and behavior of the theologian in his particular time. The term ‘phronema’ is of pre-Christian origin, and can be found in a broad range of Greek literature.

Phronema comes from the verb ‘frono’ (‘I believe’). In the religious and theological vocabulary of the Christian Church, this term, like so many others, took on a much deeper and richer meaning. Thus, phronema does not simply mean a steady orientation towards certain enduring moral values, which people knowingly profess and wisely struggle for throughout life. Rather, it means the completely self-sacrificial trust and faith in religious and ethical truths that derive not from human experience and wisdom, but from the voice of God through revelation, which is self-evident and does not undergo censure or doubt [emphasis added]. This super-subjective origin of phronema is expressed in the New Testament with the well-known term ‘mind of Christ’, which is almost synonymous with phronema.

In terms of one’s spiritual life, therefore, we must admit that phronema is not the same as conscience. For while phronema is identified as super-subjective with the ‘mind of Christ’ and unites us with those of like faith who came before us and will come after, conscience is the sum total of completely subjective ethical and spiritual powers, i.e. the most individual part of a person.

 Of course, the faithful try to harmonize their conscience with the phronema of the Church, in order to grow into ‘the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph.4:13), yet this effort remains unfulfilled until the end of our lives. That is why, strictly speaking, the Orthodox faithful — and especially the theologian — are never entitled to call upon their conscience as the final criterion of truth,  [emphasis added] although for the humanist or the Protestant, this would be the cornerstone of honesty and ethics in general.

 According to the above meaning, the phronema of the faithful in general and the theologian in particular, is an unshakeable certainty about the truth of Faith. Even when this cannot be contained in linguistic or other formulations, it remains undiminished and vibrant throughout life, a continually verified daily experience. Precisely for this reason, phronema ceaselessly upholds and characterizes in summary the spiritual physiognomy of the faithful, no matter what the external conditions may be, without ever degenerating into an ideology.

Therefore, faith and phronema are the charismatic power of the inner person that steadily and selflessly connect him or her with God, as well as with fellow human beings (as images or icons of God) and the whole creation (as the work of God). This selflessness is what radically differentiates phronema from ideology, since, as is known, the latter is never free of worldly interests.  -by Archbishop Stylianos of Australia, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia

These ideas are part of  the “spiritual hospital” of Orthodoxy, or the “therapeutic tradition.” Orthodox theology teaches that a faith is true if it heals spiritual sickness, and brings the faithful to “behold the uncreated Light.”

Martin Luther, the progenitor of the Protestant revolution, found himself rightly in protest of the spiritual sicknesses manifest in the institutional excesses of the Roman Catholic church of his day. Nevertheless, as he cut himself off, he succumbed to his own type of subjective, individualistic self-indulgence when he stated:

I cannot choose but adhere to the word of God, which has possession of my conscience; nor can I possibly, nor will I even make any recantation, since it is neither safe nor honest to act contrary to conscience! Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God! Amen. ― Martin Luther

This legacy of relying on one’s own willful conscience as the final arbiter of one’s faith, morals, and belief has had many consequences for our society, some good, some bad. At this point in our shared history, I see the bad consequnces in ascendency, but that discussion will have to wait.

Luther’s legacy to the fundamental ethos of the West, especially as Luther’s ideas were skewed by Calvin, means at attaining the Orthodox mindset is not easy for those coverts raised within either the Protestant/Evangelical or Roman Catholic traditions nor even for many (most?) of the “cradle Orthodox” raised within our secular and Western-biased culture. After thirty years of study of the Church and fifteen years as a member myself, I often catch myself pridefully thinking I have made great progress. Maybe I have made some, but I am so often reminded that I have yet to set aside the baggage I brought with me into Orthodoxy. Even worse is my record of  living it out, of being able to sacrifice my own prideful conscience and making the self-denials of lifestyle and intellectual bias that I know that I must. But that, too, is another story. All I can say here is

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s