St Gregory the Theologian: Oration 40 (part 4)

The time for baptism has arrived. St Gregory has exhaustively explored all the arguments his catechumens might invoke to defer their initiation into the Church. There is now just one thing more for the bishop to do—to name the God into whom they will be baptized. As previously noted, these catechumens have been prepared by Arian priests and catechists. They have been specifically taught that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit were created by God the Father and are thus ontologically subordinate to him. Until the deposition of Bishop Demophilus, these catechumens no doubt expected to be baptized with the Arian baptismal formula “Into the death of the Son.” But a dramatic regime change has occurred. Emperor Theodosius has made known his support of the divinity of Christ and has placed in the bishop’s chair a man who will aggressively advance the faith of Nicaea.

Today I entrust to you, St Gregory tells his catechumens, “the confession of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. … With this I will both submerge you and raise you up” (40.41). He offers them this brief statement of trinitarian faith:

This I give you as a companion and protector for all your life, the one divinity and power, found in unity in the three, and gathering together the three as distinct; neither uneven in essences or natures, nor increased or decreased by superiorities or inferiorities; from every perspective equal, from every perspective the same, as the beauty and greatness of heaven is one; an infinite coalescence of three infinities; each God when considered in himself; as the Father so the Son, as the Son so the Holy Spirit; each preserving his properties. The three are God when known together, each God because of the consubstantiality, one God because of the monarchy. When I first know the one I am also illumined from all sides by the three; when I first distinguish the three I am also carried back to the one. When I picture one of the three I consider the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part has escaped me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that one so as to grant something greater to the rest. When I bring the three together in contemplation, I see one torch and am unable to divide or measure the united light. (40.41)

We will be discussing St Gregory’s doctrine of the Holy Trinity in future posts. I briefly note the following elements in Gregory’s presentation: (1) the clear assertion of the Nicene doctrine of consubstantiality, now applied not only to the Son but also to the Spirit; (2) the grounding of the divine unity in the monarchy of the Father; and (3) the intimation of the ineffabiility of the divine being. St Gregory thus publicly repudiates the Arian faith of the deacons, present before him, who have prepared the class of catechumens he is preparing to baptize.

Who then are the catechumens to believe? At this point Gregory asks the catechumens to put their personal trust in him. They are not to fear being reproached by their catechists. They are not to to afraid of the charge of tritheism or any other charge that might thrown against them. “Let me be the shipbuilder,” he assures them, “you use the ship. And if another is the shipbuilder, accept me as master builder of the house; you dwell there in safety, though you did not labor at all. You will not have a less successful voyage or dwell less in the house if it is I who constructed them and you have not labored on them” (40.43). As their bishop Gregory will fight for them and stand with them. But they need to understand. There can be no compromise. Bishop Gregory has presented them the apostolic revelation:

“I testify before God and the elect angels,” that you must be baptized with this faith. If anyone has written in you in a way other than my discourse demands, come and have the writing changed. I am not without talent as a calligrapher of these things, writing what has been written in me and teaching what I have been taught and have kept from the beginning to these gray hairs. Mine is the danger, mine also the privilege as the director of your soul and the one who perfects you through baptism. And if you hold these beliefs and have been marked with the good writing, guard for me what has been written and remaining unchanging in changing times about the unchanging reality. (40.44)

But if any are still reluctant, if any are unwilling to embrace the trinitarian faith proclaimed to them by their bishop, then they must look for another to baptize them. “I do not have the leisure,” he continues, “to cut [apart] the Divinity and make you dead at the time of your rebirth, so that you might have neither the grace nor the hope of grace, and in a short time shipwreck your salvation. For whichever of the three you stole from the Divinity, the whole would be destroyed and so would your initiation” (40.44).

John McGuckin mentions that the Arian deacons were muttering throughout St Gregory’s homily. Perhaps they were even quietly encouraging their pupils to withhold their assent and abstain from the trinitarian baptism of this country bishop from Cappadocia. Four days later Emperor Theodosius would issue a decree that would dramatically change ecclesial life in Constantinople: all Arian clergy were banned from the use of churches within the city. Priests and deacons who would not confess the faith of Nicaea were replaced by men loyal to the catholic faith. Later that same year the bishops of Asia Minor would meet in council to reaffirm the Creed of Nicaea and its dogmatic claim that Jesus Christ is homoousios with God the Father. This council would eventually be recognized as the Second Ecumenical Council and its creedal confession embraced by all orthodox Churches. Arianism was defeated.

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4 Responses to St Gregory the Theologian: Oration 40 (part 4)

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I note that my ruminations on St Gregory have not generated many comments. Perhaps that is simply because folks have not read the orations I am discussing and are thus reluctant to discuss them. Please know that I am not an expert on St Gregory. I am as ignorant as the next person. If at any point you think I have misread him, please feel free to point this out. If you have questions about how St Gregory’s theology and pastoral practice works in today’s Church, please feel free to raise them.

    I will be going out of town for a few days beginning tomorrow afternoon. If your comments does not appear, that means it is stuck in the moderation queue. I will attend to it as soon as I return.

    Next week I will continue my ruminations on St Gregory with Oration 20, which will be a good lead-in to his Theological Orations.


  2. SteveL says:

    I am keeping up with your posts, but I haven’t read much of Nazianzus and haven’t read McGuckin’s treatment of him, either. I don’t have much to add, unfortunately.


  3. Bill M says:

    I’m following along too, though entirely as a non-commentor, as this is totally new ground for me. This confrontation, as you have described it here, is fascinating. What would it have been like to be there hearing the words of the Bishop, but knowing that all the teachers (or most) gathered around were opposed to what he was saying? And, how would a catecumen make a decision in the moment?


  4. SteveL says:

    I think that’s interesting, Bill. Nowadays, one would say, “I’m outta here!” and sit on google for a year researching church history. Then maybe come back. Maybe.


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