Old Doctrine in New Clothes

brown wooden chairs inside church


Saint Gregory of Nazianzus was one of the Cappadocian church fathers. His work, On God and Christ addresses the error of a group called the Eunomians regarding the work of theology and the doctrine of God. The five orations that compose the primary section of On God and Christ exhibit the early church’s process of understanding the Bible’s teaching on theology proper, Christology, pneumatology, and ultimately the doctrine of the Trinity. Gregory’s five orations are a magisterial work of Christian orthodoxy that continue in relevance for the church’s present age. This piece will trace Gregory’s argument throughout the orations, examine the strengths of his argument, and provide an explanation of the contemporary usefulness and necessity of Gregory’s work for the church.

The Orations and Argument

Gregory’s commencing oration directly addresses the error of the Eunomians in improperly doing the work of theology. When contemplating the deep things of God, Gregory understands the command of Scripture to be an ongoing meditation. However, regarding theological discussion and debate the Theologian speaks with a serrated edge to his opponents. Out of proper reverence for God, theological discussion must be reserved for those who are God’s, lest pagans and non-believers learn subversive apologetics against the true God while exercising flippancy in theological discussion. Gregory saw that people who had no business in theology were seeking to make themselves a name in theological debate. Their time would be better spent on the wide road of pagan philosophy where volume of words and lack of prudence reign. But, for the people who are truly of God, though their knowledge of God is limited to what God has communicated of himself to them, theology is an infinitely more fruitful enterprise. For Gregory, the work of theology among brothers in the faith truly maintains reverence for the things of God.

The second oration commences Gregory’s dive into the depths of the doctrine of God. The act of doing theology is to be in the presence of God not unlike Moses’s experience at Mount Sinai. To improperly speak of the things of God is to heap God’s wrath upon one’s own head. This knowledge places the Theologian in a stance of humility in light of the incomprehensibility of God. Gregory proceeds to make an offensive towards his opponents’ veneration of deductive argumentation and dialectic method through exposing the limitations of these methods due to their contingency on the human mind. To think one can know God fully with a finite mind is an act of pride according to Gregory. Further demonstrating the limitation of the human mind, Gregory retells stories from Scripture in which God reveals himself to specific people; even after direct encounters with God, these men did not, could not explain the fullness of the essence of God. The Theologian then appeals to nature with an argument not unlike God’s questioning of Job in chapters thirty-eight through forty-one. The complexity of creation that humans struggle to understand should be enough of an argument against the claim of the Eunomians that the “truth” of the incorporeal, transcendent God can be known fully.

Gregory moves from the doctrine of the Godhead as a whole to Christology in the third oration. Gregory addresses the issue of the eternal generation of the Son and his consubstantial being with the Father. Once more, he argues the Achilles’s heel to the argument of his opponents is their attempt at utilizing human reasoning to subvert the teaching of Scripture. Scripture’s teaching regarding the Son’s begetting from the Father is as one who is equal in eternality with the Father. In essence, the Son has never not been because there has never been a time when the Father was not. This extends to the question of “separate wills” within the Godhead; Gregory explains due to the co-eternality of the Father and the Son there has never been a division of wills betwixt them. The Theologian then speaks with a holy scorn toward the ridiculousness of asking, “How?” in reference to the begetting of the Son. To ask this question with the expectation of a definitive answer is to expect to have knowledge that is only known by the Godhead. Gregory then surveys the Scriptures to demonstrate the power of the Son as God and the efficaciousness of the Son’s ministry and atoning work in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. While hinting at this being a full Trinitarian work, Gregory transitions to an in-depth discussion on the Incarnation.

The fourth oration is a continuation of the Theologian’s discourse on the Son. For his opponents, Gregory addresses problem passages that highlight the human limitations of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ in human flesh. He highlights that any form of weakness or submission that is seen in Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, or post-ascension ministry is on behalf of the ones he came to save. The Theologian then examines the names used for the Son that elucidate different aspects of his full humanity and full divinity as taught in Scripture.

Gregory then transitions to address the third person of the Trinity to conclude this set of orations to properly consider each person of the Godhead, he is the Holy Spirit. With the Spirit proceeding from the Son and Father, the line of argumentation utilized by Gregory for the Son’s deity is seen again to understand that there has never been a time when the Spirit was not God. Gregory appeals to the progressive revelation of God’s dealings with humanity through the Law and gospel, Israel and the church as well as an examination of the Scriptures to demonstrate that God indeed reveals himself in such a way. This holy Trinity is a mystery to finite humans, but the Father, the eternally begotten Son, and the eternally proceeding Spirit are distinct persons consubstantial to one another, the one God who makes himself known in the Scriptures.

Striking Blows

There are many strengths within Gregory’s orations. His explanation of the graveness of the work of theology is the first strength noticed by this examiner. In dealing with the things of God, people may be tempted to speak with irreverence or flippancy, but the Theologian reminds his audience of the One whom they are speaking of, God himself. Gregory’s allegorical repurposing of Moses being in the presence of God and the slaying of Nadab and Abihu is a sobering reminder that God does have a true standard in which we are to approach him and the things of him.

Gregory’s second strength is found in his commitment and dependence in hinging his arguments to the Scriptures. He does this as a subversion to the Eunomian tendency to exalt human reason, particularly in the ignorant, at best, prideful, at worst, assumption that human reason empowers the thinker to fully comprehend God. Gregory, rather tethers his line of reasoning to the corpus of the Bible as the true, very word of God given to his people. The seemingly simple use of Scripture throughout the orations is a genius polemic against the Eunomians’ theological method and conclusions.

The use of progressive argumentation is another strength within the orations. As he presents what it is to do theology, the doctrine of God, the Son in his divinity and humanity, and the divinity of the Spirit in one divine essence with the Father and the Son, Gregory connects each argument to the content previously presented. The strength lies in the interconnectedness of everything that Gregory states within the orations. If what he says about the weight of the work of theology is true in the first oration his understanding of the Spirit must be true. Like the single thread that may unravel the entire sweater, Gregory has followed the teaching of Scripture to understand how God has revealed himself to his people that those who are in error may properly be corrected.

The Ascent Continues

Though many years have passed since these orations were given, contemporary opposition of orthodoxy is incredibly similar to the challenges faced by Gregory. Furthermore, the Theologian’s defense of the truth provides a path for the church to follow in modern discussion of the work of theology, the doctrine of God, and the Trinity.

Gregory’s warning to those who would approach the things of God without proper reverence for God is a warning that must be on the lips of the church to those who speak with loose lips regarding her Lord. People think that they are free to demean the people of God because the church is not reminding the world of the God whom she serves. This is work that needs to be done within the church itself. A recent revival in biblical theology, not unlike Gregory’s, has aided in this task.

As Gregory examined the whole of the Bible in order to listen to God’s revelation of himself, so are many in the church and in Christian scholarship today. The revelation of God is being traversed from Genesis through Revelation, and people are seeing that God is the holy mighty one who is not to be mocked, in accordance with Gregory’s advice to caution in theology. Furthermore, in the progression of the story of the Bible the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are seen in divine mystery as the one Triune God. In contrast to modern mysticism that would leave all that is of God to mystery, Gregory demonstrates proper understanding that through the Scriptures God has spoken of himself to his people truths that must be known, clung to, and lived by. Gregory’s examination of the Scripture demonstrates a good “plain reading of the text” does not get in the way of God’s word through an overwrought explanation that seeks to do away with the supernatural or mysterious things.

The exaltation of human reason seems to be an ever-present adversary to the word and work of God. In Gregory’s dealings with the Eunomians, the limitation of human reason had to be reexplained. From the period of the Enlightenment to the present day, atheists to stated followers of Jesus will say that they are speaking “their truth” in essence saying that they are the arbiters in matters of knowing reality. Gregory tore this line of thought apart first with an examination of the limited understanding of nature that humanity had in his day. Sure, people may have microscopes and telescopes now, but all that has shown them is that there are even smaller and greater details than could have been imagined before. With each layer of humanity’s progress in science and reason is a layer of nature’s complexity that was formerly unknown. Gregory understood that this is an affirmation that those who claim the ability to have a comprehensive knowledge of God are kidding themselves. The relativists and functional relativists of today would be wiser for admitting the same.

Final Words

Gregory of Nazianzus’s theological orations found in On God and Christ distill what it means for the church to participate in the work of theology. Theology is to be done as unto the Lord, in the presence of the Lord. The Bible is how God has made himself known to his people that they may know who he is: Father, Son, and Spirit holy and Triune. Though the opposition may be packaged differently, Gregory’s work holds fast against those who would wish to undo God’s self-revelation to his church.

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