The first volume of Empirical Dogmatics is divided into four chapters: Dogma and Ethics, The Experience of Revelation, The Bearers of Revelation and The Living Monuments of Revelation.
This is a different kind of dogmatics because it is based on experience. “Dogma is not to be believed. Dogma is to be experienced.” Dogma is not human speculation. It has nothing to do with philosophy or metaphysics. It does not lead to any form of moralism. Fr. John often draws parallels between theology and the positive sciences, particularly medicine and astronomy. The method proposed for approaching dogma, and theology in general, is experiment, experience, observation and recording, as well as verification of the degree of success in achieving the aim by means of results. The aim is man’s glorification, which is reached by way of purification and illumination. Holy relics are tangible evidence for the authenticity of this experience, which transforms the whole human being, body and soul. It is empirical realities of this kind that attract non-Orthodox Christians today.
Dogma is the record of the revelatory experience of the saints who see God. It is the rational formulation of the mystery that they experienced. Dogma also acts as a means of therapeutic treatment for those who are spiritually sick and as a guide and signpost showing the way to glorification. There is a close connection between dogma and ethics, which Orthodox theology identifies with ascetic practice. The ascetic method consists of striving for purification, and leads to illumination. In this way the separation of the rational faculty from the noetic faculty is achieved, the darkened nous is illuminated and unceasing noetic prayer begins. Man is then in a position to experience dogma and to reach glorification. The empirical basis of dogma is the foundation of the spiritual life, understood in the context of the life of the Church.
The experience of revelation, of glorification, is the experience of Pentecost. Theology is an expression of the vision of God, but is not identical with it, because in the state of divine vision theology is transcended. The Christian is led to this experience through obedience to an experienced spiritual father. Spiritual fatherhood and its therapeutic dimension is the factor that links the bearers of the revelation: the glorified down through the ages and the God-seers of the Old and New Testaments. The difference between them is that the glorified Prophets of the Old Testament experience the revelation of the unincarnate Word, whereas the glorified Apostles, Fathers and saints of the New Testament experience the incarnate Word. Divine inspiration is another characteristic that they share, so they are unerring theologians. The infallibility of the Ecumenical Councils, which set out dogmas when the appearance of heretics makes this necessary, is due to the divine inspiration and freedom from error of the glorified Fathers who participated in them.
The theological teaching of Fr. John clarifies misunderstandings and resolves points of uncertainty. For instance, he clarifies the distinction between the revelation itself and the ‘living monuments of the revelation’: Holy Scripture and Tradition. The source of the faith is revelation, the experience of uncreated, ineffable words. The purpose of created words and concepts in Holy Scripture and Tradition is to cure man through purification, illumination and glorification.
This therapeutic method is the heart of the Orthodox Tradition and Empirical Dogmatics is a therapeutic intervention for those who are tired of the barren wanderings of Western theology.