St Gregory the Theologian: Oration 20 (part 1)


On 9 August 378 the Eastern Roman Emperor and earnest supporter of Arianism, Valens, was killed by the Goths at the Battle of Adrianople. Emperor Gratian subsequently appointed one of his ablest generals as co-emperor and Augustus of the East—Theodosius of Hispania. Recognizing the ecclesiastical chaos that then existed in the East, Gratian and Theodosius jointly decided that they would promote the Nicene orthodoxy of the Western Church throughout the Empire.

With the enthronement of Theodosius new possibilities opened up for the embattled Eastern supporters of Nicaea. In 379 Saint Meletius, bishop of Antioch, convened a synod of 150 bishops. The primary task of the synod was to settle the episcopal dispute between Meletius and Paulinus and thus reunite the Church of Antioch; but its “wider goal,” as John McGuckin notes, “was to bring to an end the greater Arian ‘schism’ in the East” (Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, p. 236). The bishops were also concerned with the increasing popularity of the christological teachings of Apollinarius. The synod thus decided to invite Gregory of Nazianzus, now living in semi-seclusion in Seleukia, to go to Constantinople and begin a preaching mission on behalf of Nicene orthodoxy, with particular emphasis on refuting Apollinarianism.

St Gregory arrived in Constantinople in the autumn of 379 and mapped out his strategy. He decided to ignore the Apollinarists altogether and to focus his rhetorical energies on refuting the extreme views of the Neo-Arian party of Eunomius. McGuckin observes that this decision was a stroke of genius on Gregory’s part. Eunomius was disliked by the Arian bishop of Constantinople, Demophilus. Eunomius taught that the Father and Son were dissimilar in being (anhomoian); Demophilus taught that they were nonsubstantially similar (homoian). Both agreed that the Son is created and thus ontologically subordinate to the Father; both firmly rejected the homoousion of the Nicene creed. Gregory would argue that the Anomoians and the Homoians in essence represented the same heterodox position. The Arianism of Demophilus was thus damned by association. Gregory’s attack upon Neo-Arianism would culminate in his famous Five Theological Orations, delivered in the house church of the Anastasia in the summer months of 380.

McGuckin believes that Oration 20 may be the first homily delivered by St Gregory after his arrival in Constantinople. In this homily Gregory addresses several of the themes that he will address in greater depth and substance in his Five Theological Orations. Oration 20 thus represents his theological introduction to the small remnant of Nicene believers in Constantinople.

St Gregory immediately announces his disgust with “the endless talkativeness that haunts us today” (20.1). It appears that everyone in Constantinople loved to speculate upon and debate theological topics. It’s as if the entire city was one internet forum, with everyone logging on and fiercely advancing their opinions, no matter what their intellectual and spiritual qualifications. How easy it is to become “instant sages and designated theologians.” All one needs to do is to opine. “I yearn,” Gregory declares, “for the philosophy that comes from above”:

I yearn for that “final lodging,” to use Jeremiah’s phrase, and I want only to be off by myself. For nothing seems so important to me as for a person to shut off his senses, to take his place outside the flesh and the world—not to fasten on human realities unless it is completely necessary, and so, in conversation with himself and with God, to live above the level of the visible, and always to bear the images of divine things within himself in their pure state, free from the stamp of what is inferior and changeable. In this way, one is—and one is always becoming—a spotless mirror of God and divine things, assimilating light to light, and adding clarity to indistinct beginnings, until we come to the source of the light that radiates in this world and lay hold of our blessed end, where mirrors are dissolved in true reality. One can scarcely achieve this, except either by training oneself in the discipline of philosophy for a long time, and so detaching the noble and luminous elements of the soul, little by little, from what is base and mingled with darkness, or else by obtaining God’s mercy—or by a combination of the two; so making it one’s concern, as far as possible, to turn one’s gaze upwards, one might gain mastery over the materiality that drags one downwards. But before one has elevated this materiality as far as possible, and has sufficiently purified one’s ears and one’s intelligence, I do not think it is safe either to accept a position of spiritual leadership or to devote oneself to theology. (20.1)

Implicit in St Gregory’s statement is the assertion that he has in fact spent years in the contemplation of God through prayer, ascetical discipline, and meditation upon the Holy Scriptures. Gregory is presenting himself to his community as one who is spiritually qualified to speak on the holy things of God. He has experienced the illumination of the Holy Spirit. His soul has been assimilated, at least to a degree, to the divine light. He is a true bishop of the Church.

The language employed here, of detachment from the material world and spiritual ascent to the immaterial, is the language of Plato and Origen. It is an idiom with which Gregory’s audience would have been quite familiar and comfortable. I’m not sure how comfortable I am with it, though. Surely St Gregory is not suggesting that the Holy Scriptures, the sacramental mysteries, and the economy of salvation are irrelevant to our apprehension of divine truth. Did not the Creator make us in his image precisely as embodied creatures? Did not the incomprehensible God enflesh himself in our human nature precisely so that we might know and love him and be deified in his sanctified corporeality? But the figure that we are mirrors of God reflecting the divine light, constantly being cleansed and burnished by our ascetical discipline and divine grace, until that eschatological moment “where mirrors are dissolved in true reality” is a beautiful way to express our sanctification and glorification. Yet the above passage still raises questions for me. Gregory’s phraseology almost makes it sound like theology is an individual endeavor, reserved for a mystical elite, rather than a communal activity of the Spirit-indwelt Church. But perhaps this is the best way for Gregory to approach the pastoral problem that he is confronting in Constantinople. Christians are divided. Heresy is popular. Everyone thinks of himself as competent to speak authoritatively about God in his transcendent, ineffable reality. Into this situation St Gregory the Theologian steps, “making a loud claim to prophetic and luminous vision to inaugurate his teaching” (McGuckin, p. 245).

I wholeheartedly agree that God’s self-revelation in Christ Jesus through the Spirit cannot be apprehended and known except through spiritual and moral transformation. The saving knowledge of the Holy Trinity is not a book knowledge; it is not acquired as one might acquire a knowledge of mathematics or geology. As we saw in St Gregory’s Epiphany orations, we must be purified by faith, repentance, prayer, fasting, and holy works of love and compassion. We must be formed by the Scriptures and the eucharistic life of the Church and become new creatures in Christ. Without such purification and illumination, without deep interior healing, conversion, and sanctification, one cannot be an authentic theologian of the Church.

I graduated from seminary when I was only 28 years old. How confident I was in my theological convictions and how willing I was to assert them with great authority, despite my spiritual immaturity and emotional brokenness. How little I knew. How little I now know.

(Go to Part 2)

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3 Responses to St Gregory the Theologian: Oration 20 (part 1)

  1. joelrice says:

    Very much enjoying this. Trying to make my ol’ mind bones work as they once did. One provocative thought(possibly?):Do the words from the New Testament(someone with knowledge of scripture help me here)
    “unless you believe as a little child” have any significance here?


  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have revised the above article in light of further reflection.

    And yes, Joel, I think you are right. How can we begin to do theology if we do not become like little children, just as Jesus taught (Matt 18:3).


  3. elijahmaria says:

    …Sacraments, Liturgy, Prayer, Alms Giving and Fasting and Faith Seeking Understanding…and pretty much in that order. Hindsight is 20/20 for those who are blessed with any sight at all. I think this is one of my favorite postings from you!…in Christ.


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