One More Thought Prompted by Gregory of Nazianzus

As the title of Beeley’s book reveals, Gregory placed much emphasis on the knowledge of God. While I read through it, I began wondering how it was the knowledge could effect salvation in the way that Gregory proposes. This must not be taken in a contemporary sense of what knowledge is (often assumed to be some type of cognitive content). For Gregory, there is the process of purification and illumination (ch. 1 in Beeley’s book) by the Holy Spirit which points to Christ and through him to the Father. God is incomprehensible, but not unknowable and to my great surprise Gregory doesn’t hold to the essence/energies distinction found in Basil and Gregory of Nyssa. One can know God’s essence (though only partially) by knowing the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit. That, however, is another topic altogether. More importantly here, Beeley’s book caused me to question how it is that knowledge can effect salvation. I will call it the Cognitive Salvation Model (CSM) and contrast it to what is taken to be it’s opposite (though whether it is or not is another question), the Ethical Salvation Model (ESM). Or, to put it more simply, deeds over creeds. I began to wonder whether those who are critical of CSM in favor of a type of ESM ever put worship of God into the type of action necessary for salvation. I ask this because my initial impression is that such a proposition would push one back into CSM,which of course would be self-defeating for ESM proponents. Obviously this is an over-simplificiation for the sake of analysis, but I wish worship of God was seen as a more important aspect of the “dogmas” (i.e., sine qua non) of salvation according to Christianity.

Two Thoughts on Gregory of Nazianzus

Just finished Dr. Christopher A. Beeley’s book Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God: In Your Light We Shall See Light (an excellent introduction to Gregory’s theology), hence the many recent posts on/related to Gregory. Two thoughts have remained in my mind throughout my reading of the book.

  1. If Gregory edited his orations into the order that we now have them, then should they not be studied in that order? I wonder what insights might be gained by doing that. For instance, is it a coincidence that the first and last oration are Easter orations? Or that the first three orations deal with issues related to the difficulty of ministry? If I were to hazard a guess without actually having in my possession all 45 orations (or of even having read more than seven or eight), I would say that Gregory’s arrangement might be as a handbook for ministers which reinforces true doctrine (i.e., belief in the Trinity) with insights into the difficulties and joys of being a minister. Definitely something worth looking into.
  2. In Gregory, and in many other Patristic writers, there is a sense in which salvation is the beginning of a long healing process in which the mind and the body are slowly trained to be reoriented towards God. This got me thinking about Paul’s epistle to the Romans (now that I think about it, I’m not sure where the connection was), specifically the part in Romans 7 about the two different laws; one of my mind and one of the “members” of my body. When I revisited this passage, I all of a sudden saw the human flesh as a hindrance to spiritual progress (of course, the good Kupyrians/neo-Calvinists/N.T. Wright may shudder at the thought of “demonizing” physical existence as “Platonic”). Paul’s rhetorical quesiton about deliverance from a body of death refers to his real body (but not necessarily a complete removal from the physical body). If this is the case, could the law of the Spirit be a literal transformation of my physical humanity? I don’t know, and would have to look into this more. At the same time, I wondered if there are any precedents in earlier writers (Greek or Hellenistic Jew) which referred to human nature in terms of “law”. Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree, but I am interested in biblical precedents for the Patristic understanding of the transformation of human nature by the spirit pre-resurrection.

Perhaps You Have Not Met with a Bishop

Who has not heard of the prefect of those days, who, for his own part, treated us with such excessive arrogance, having himself been admitted, or perhaps committed, to baptism by the other party; and strove by exceeding the letter of his instructions, and gratifying his master in every particular, to guarantee and preserve his own possession of power.  Though he raged against the Church, and assumed a lion-like aspect, and roared like a lion till most men dared not approach him, yet our noble prelate was brought into or rather entered his court, as if bidden to a feast, instead of to a trial.  How can I fully describe, either the arrogance of the prefect or the prudence with which it was met by the Saint.  “What is the meaning, Sir Basil,” he said, addressing him by name, and not as yet deigning to term him Bishop, “of your daring, as no other dares, to resist and oppose so great a potentate?”  “In what respect?” said our noble champion, “and in what does my rashness consist?  For this I have yet to learn.”  “In refusing to respect the religion of your Sovereign, when all others have yielded and submitted themselves?”  “Because,” said he, “this is not the will of my real Sovereign; nor can I, who am the creature of God, and bidden myself to be God, submit to worship any creature.”  “And what do we,” said the prefect, “seem to you to be?  Are we, who give you this injunction, nothing at all?  What do you say to this?  Is it not a great thing to be ranged with us as your associates?”  “You are, I will not deny it,” said he, “a prefect, and an illustrious one, yet not of more honour than God.  And to be associated with you is a great thing, certainly; for you are yourself the creature of God; but so it is to be associated with any other of my subjects. For faith, and not personal importance, is the distinctive mark of Christianity.”

Then indeed the prefect became excited, and rose from his seat, boiling with rage, and making use of harsher language.  “What?” said he, “have you no fear of my authority?  “Fear of what?” said Basil, “How could it affect me?”  “Of what?  Of any one of the resources of my power.” “What are these?” said Basil, “pray, inform me.” “Confiscation, banishment, torture, death.” “Have you no other threat?” said he, “for none of these can reach me.”  “How indeed is that?” said the prefect.  “Because,” he replied, “a man who has nothing, is beyond the reach of confiscation; unless you demand my tattered rags, and the few books, which are my only possessions.  Banishment is impossible for me, who am confined by no limit of place, counting my own neither the land where I now dwell, nor all of that into which I may be hurled; or, rather, counting it all God’s, whose guest and dependent I am.  As for tortures, what hold can they have upon one whose body has ceased to be?  Unless you mean the first stroke, for this alone is in your power.  Death is my benefactor, for it will send me the sooner to God, for Whom I live, and exist, and have all but died, and to Whom I have long been hastening.”

Amazed at this language, the prefect said, “No one has ever yet spoken thus, and with such boldness, to Modestus.”  “Why, perhaps,” said Basil, “you have not met with a Bishop, or in his defence of such interests he would have used precisely the same language.  For we are modest in general, and submissive to every one, according to the precept of our law.  We may not treat with haughtiness even any ordinary person, to say nothing of so great a potentate.  But where the interests of God are at stake, we care for nothing else, and make these our sole object.  Fire and sword and wild beasts, and rakes which tear the flesh, we revel in, and fear them not.  You may further insult and threaten us, and do whatever you will, to the full extent of your power.  The Emperor himself may hear this—that neither by violence nor persuasion will you bring us to make common cause with impiety, not even though your threats become still more terrible.”

-Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration XLIII.48-50, NPNF 2.7 (tr. Browne and Swallow)

How’s that for Church/State relations?

Education and Pastoral Ministry

I take it as admitted by men of sense, that the first of our advantages is education; and not only this our more noble form of it, which disregards rhetorical ornaments and glory, and holds to salvation, and beauty in the objects of our contemplation:  but even that external culture which many Christians ill-judgingly abhor, as treacherous and dangerous, and keeping us afar from God. For as we ought not to neglect the heavens, and earth, and air, and all such things, because some have wrongly seized upon them, and honour God’s works instead of God:  but to reap what advantage we can from them for our life and enjoyment, while we avoid their dangers; not raising creation, as foolish men do, in revolt against the Creator, but from the works of nature apprehending the Worker, and, as the divine apostle says, bringing into captivity every thought to Christ:  and again, as we know that neither fire, nor food, nor iron, nor any other of the elements, is of itself most useful, or most harmful, except according to the will of those who use it; and as we have compounded healthful drugs from certain of the reptiles; so from secular literature we have received principles of enquiry and speculation, while we have rejected their idolatry, terror, and pit of destruction.  Nay, even these have aided us in our religion, by our perception of the contrast between what is worse and what is better, and by gaining strength for our doctrine from the weakness of theirs.  We must not then dishonour education, because some men are pleased to do so, but rather suppose such men to be boorish and uneducated, desiring all men to be as they themselves are, in order to hide themselves in the general, and escape the detection of their want of culture.


-Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration XLIII.11 NPNF 2.7 (tr. Browne and Swallow)

Seems to be an appropriate follow up to my previous post.

The Need to Attain Wisdom for Pastoral Ministry

Now, if we were to speak gently to one of them, advancing, as follows, step by step in argument:  “Tell me, my good sir, do you call dancing anything, and flute-playing?” “Certainly,” they would say.  “What then of wisdom and being wise, which we venture to define as a knowledge of things divine and human?”  This also they will admit.  “Are then these accomplishments better than and superior to wisdom, or wisdom by far better than these?”  “Better even than all things,” I know well that they will say.  Up to this point they are judicious.  “Well, dancing and flute-playing require to be taught and learnt, a process which takes time, and much toil in the sweat of the brow, and sometimes the payment of fees, and entreaties for initiation, and long absence from home, and all else which must be done and borne for the acquisition of experience:  but as for wisdom, which is chief of all things, and holds in her embrace everything which is good, so that even God himself prefers this title to all the names which He is called; are we to suppose that it is a matter of such slight consequence, and so accessible, that we need but wish, and we would be wise?”  “It would be utter folly to do so.”  If we, or any learned and prudent man, were to say this to them, and try by degrees to cleanse them from their error, it would be sowing upon rocks, and speaking to ears of men who will not hear:  so far are they from being even wise enough to perceive their own ignorance.  And we may rightly, in my opinion, apply to them the saying of Solomon:  There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, a man wise in his own conceit; and a still greater evil is to charge with the instruction of others a man who is not even aware of his own ignorance.


-Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration II.50, NPNF 2.7 (tr. Browne and Swallow)

Two points about this quote. The first is that the adaptation of Socratic dialectic is brilliant. Reminds me of Socrates in Cratylus arguing that name-giving is a work, which means it requires skill, which means language cannot merely be arbitrary. While I disagree with Socrates conclusion, arguing from work to skill to wisdom to knowledge of the good seems to be common throughout Plato. I’m sure I’ll see it more as I read through the Republic.

Second, I was reminded of my undergrad where (paraphrasing one of my professors put it) those who want to “do” ministry wont take the time to do the hard work of studying the Bible, whereas those who do the “classwork” don’t lift a finger at their own churches (I fit into this category). Both seem to suffer from what Gregory indicts as a wishfulness for wisdom, only in the opposite areas of necessary ministerial activity. I doubt Gregory would have separated biblical studies from the care of souls: both require wisdom, which means both require work. Another professor in my undergrad noted that one would never place the care of one’s body in the hands of an untrained physician, but so many are willing to place the care of their souls into untrained hands. What does that tell us about our priorities? (note: placing a “higher” value on the soul does not make one a dreaded “Platonist” nor necessitate a denial of the resurrection). Does not the care of souls require even more wisdom than the care of bodies? A broken bone isn’t hidden from sight, but intentions, motivations, and thoughts are. A pastor must be able to discern the later set in order to give accurate and appropriate council, yet it seems that many people today would rather trust their facebook friends who in all likelihood cannot even discern their own intentions, motivations, and thoughts but feel free to generalize to universal principles based on their individual experience (hint: your sample size is too small!). On the other hand, a wise pastor deals with many different people from many different backgrounds, with many different motivations. As such, they should be able to see what is wrong with greater clarity than the stranger in the supermarket.

Greater in Generation

As your third point you count the Word Greater; and as your fourth, To My God and your God. And indeed, if He had been called greater, and the word equal had not occurred, this might perhaps have been a point in their favour.  But if we find both words clearly used what will these gentlemen have to say?  How will it strengthen their argument?  How will they reconcile the irreconcilable?  For that the same thing should be at once greater than and equal to the same thing is an impossibility; and the evident solution is that the Greater refers to origination, while the Equal belongs to the Nature; and this we acknowledge with much good will.  But perhaps some one else will back up our attack on your argument, and assert, that That which is from such a Cause is not inferior to that which has no Cause; for it would share the glory of the Unoriginate, because it is from the Unoriginate.  And there is, besides, the Generation, which is to all men a matter so marvellous and of such Majesty.  For to say that he is greater than the Son considered as man, is true indeed, but is no great thing.  For what marvel is it if God is greater than man?  Surely that is enough to say in answer to their talk about Greater.


-Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 30.7, NPNF 2.7 (tr. by Browne and Swallow)

So, it appears that Gregory, contrary to Athanasius and many others, does not interpret the statements by Jesus concerning inferiority to the Father as referring to his incarnational state. Instead, “Greater” indicates something about generation, whereas their “equality” speaks to the kind of nature their share (i.e., the Father’s). Simply put, the Father is greater than the Son because he is the cause/source/arche of the Son, but the Son is equal to the Father because he has the same nature.

Christian Experience as an Argument for the Divinity of the Holy Spirit and the Doctrine of the Trinity in Gregory of Nazianzus

It is significant that at this point Gregory appeals to the identity of the Spirit’s work with the work of God–that is, the doctrine of identical operations among the persons of the Trinity–not as a fundamental argument for the Spirit’s divinity but as an element of spiritual exegesis, based on baptismal deification. Despite the common scholarly view that Nicene theologicans established the unity of the Trinity on the basis of the common activity of the three persons, or the presence of this argument, for example, in Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus does not establish his Trinitarian doctrine in this way, because he recognizes that any argument from the identity of activities depends on a prior question–namely, how do we know that God does not do divine things through nondivine or semidivine intermediaries? In his argument for the divinity of the Son an d the Spirit, particularly in the Theological Orations, Gregory squarely bases his position on the soteriological principles of divinization through the divine economy and the corresponding spiritual exegesis of Scripture. In this respect, it must be admitted that a different understanding of salvation, or even a different baptismal practice, could yield a different doctrinal understanding, for the two go hand in hand. For this reason the argument from identical activities cannot suffice to establish the doctrine of the Trinity without the more primary soteriological approach that it assumes and represents. We might compare Gregory’s approach to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s argument that learning the language game of naming involves not simply learning what to call specific objects, or “ostensive definition,” but more fundamentally learning the human activity of naming, which includes all sorts of mental, bodily, and social practices. For Gregory it is the Christian’s actual knowledge of God through the presence of the Holy Spirit within the life of the Church that enables him or her to identify the Spirit as God in the biblical text, and to practice theology at all. The Spirit’s divinity, and consequently the knowledge of God in Christ, is thus shown directly in and through the lived process of Christian growth, and it is this fuller sense of knowing that is epistemically foundational. In Gregory’s system, the Bible, we might say, necessarily connects with Christian theological experience (without losing its authority or canonical force), just as Christians undergo the sanctification that is attested in Scripture and typified definitively in the person of Christ. By integrating all of these themes, Gregory completes the rhetorical chiasmus that he began with the question of the witness of Scripture (31.1), that reader’s sense of expectation is fulfilled at last.”


-Christopher A. Beeley, Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God (Oxford: OUP, 2008), 182-183.

If this is an accurate representation of Gregory’s thought, I am at one time both excited and frustrated. Excited because I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that arguing for the Trinity on the basis of “identical activities” left the question open (as pointed out above) as to the use of nondivine intermediaries. If God can use creatures without necessarily implying their divinity, then the Holy Spirit (or even Jesus) could then be found to ultimately be a creature. That seems like a poor way to argue for the Trinity. On the other hand, I am frustrated because his solution (as described by Beeley), also leaves open the question of (what I will call) subjectivity. That is, if the foundation or rational of believing that “A” is true or has certain characteristics, etc… is my own individual experience of it, then what basis does one have for criticizing anyone else’s beliefs? To put it more bluntly, I fear that such methodology (if it can be called that) commits the Tom Cruise fallacy: “If you knew what I knew, you’d know.” Maybe I’m too much of a rationalist, but I want something more “objective.” There is much I like in Beeley’s description, but it also seems to open some doors I’m not ready to in just yet.