St Gregory the Theologian: Oration 20 (part 2)


“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). Though St Gregory does not cite this text in Oration 20, it well summarizes his approach to theological reflection. Before we dare to think and speculate, much less publicly opine, on divine matters, we must first recall who and what is the object of our philosophizing. God is no ordinary object. Theology is not like studying rhetoric, mathematics, biology, or astronomy. God is the transcendent creator, the holy one of Israel. And so St Gregory recalls to his parishioners precisely what it means to meet this God.

“I hear the story of Moses,” Gregory writes,

when God began to communicate with him: several people were invited to come near the mountain, including Aaron with his two priestly sons; all the rest were commanded to worship from afar, but Moses alone was told to approach, while the people were not allowed to go up the mountain with him. Just a little before this, flashes of lightning and claps of thunder, trumpet-calls and the sight of the whole mountain covered with smoke, awful threats and other terrifying signs of this kind, held them below. It was a great thing for them simply to hear the voice of God—and this was allowed them only when they had very thoroughly purified themselves. But Moses went up, walked into the cloud, met God and received the law—for most people, the law of the letter, and for those who can rise above the crowd, that of the Spirit. (20.2)

The story of Moses’ encounter with God on Mt Sinai features centrally in Gregory’s Five Theological Orations. Not all are prepared to converse with the Most High; not all prepared to enter into the holy cloud and safely encounter the mysterium tremendum. Who dares to look directly at the sun? Protective eyeglasses are needed. Only those who have been cleansed and purified by the Spirit are equipped to draw near to the the Lord of Hosts as did Moses. Our knowledge of the incomprehensible Deity is directly proportional to our spiritual condition. As St Gregory states, “To the extent that we are purified it [the divine light] appears, to the extent that it appears, it is loved, to the extent that it is loved it is again known” (40.5).

Too many people are chattering about God as if they too have, like Moses, climbed the Holy Mountain. They do not know of what they speak, for they have not personally encountered and experienced the mystery who is the LORD. Hence their speech is frivolous and their thinking superficial. They have forgotten what the Old Testament teaches of the divine holiness. When the oxen pulling the Ark of the Covenant slipt, Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the Ark, a perfectly appropriate action, yet God struck him down (2 Sam 6). Only properly purified priests were permitted to approach the Holy of Holies in the Temple; only the High Priest was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies. “Our God is a consuming fire,” the Bible tells us (Heb 12:29). John McGuckin summarizes St Gregory’s approach to the doing of theology:

[Gregory] builds his first claim for authoritative hearing on the nature of inspired vision of God, gained through long ascetic purification. Anyone else who assays the heights of the mountain of theology is making a very dangerous ascent. This is evidenced by the dangers attendant when Moses received the luminous vision on Sinai, and all, even Aaron and the priests, had to stay a safe distance away. The mass of people can no more do theology than the common man can safely touch the Ark of the Covenant. To do so recklessly is fatal. The practice of theology, therefore, is a priestly activity, just like entering the veil of the holies, or a approaching the altar of the temple. It is sacrilegious for it to be done in a secular way or by those not properly chosen, and even the chosen High Priest of Israel had to purify himself rigorously when he entered the Sanctum, just as Gregory does when he discourses about God. (Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, p. 245)

41993180What is needed in the Church of Constantinople is a spirit of humility, repentance of sin, godly fear, reverent awe, and restraint of speech. “Knowing this, then, myself,” Gregory explains, “and knowing that no one is worthy of the great God, who is both victim and high priest, unless one has first offered oneself to God as a living sacrifice, or rather has become a holy, living temple of the living God, how should I be hasty to engage myself to speak concerning God, or approve anyone who might engage himself to use such words in a rash way? To desire such a thing is not praiseworthy, and to attempt it strikes fear in the heart!” (20.4). In his Theological Orations Gregory will ground this humility of speech, not only in our present sinful condition before the all-holy Deity, but in the infinite magnitude and incomprehensibility of the divine being: God surpasses all of our concepts and theological constructions.

What then is required to become a theologian of the Church? The last paragraph of the oration is particularly illuminating:

If you trust me, then—and I am no rash theologian!—grasp what you can, and pray to grasp the rest. Love what already abides within you, and let the rest await you in the treasury above. Approach it by the way you live: what is pure can only be acquired through purification. Do you want to become a theologian someday, to be worthy of the divinity? Keep the commandments, make your way forward through observing the precepts: for the practical life is the launching-pad for contemplation. Start with the body, but find joy in working for your soul. Now what human being is there who can be raised up high enough to meet the measure of Paul? Yet he, too, says that he sees “through a mirror, dimly,” and that the time is yet to come when he will “see face to face.” Are you more philosophical than others in your speech? In any case, you speak on a lower level than God. Are you, perhaps, more clever than others? Still you fall short of the truth, to the degree that your being stands second to the being of God. We have the promise that we will someday “know just as we are known.” If it is impossible to have perfect knowledge of all things here in this life, what remains for me? What is there to hope for? Perhaps you will say: the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet I consider this to be nothing else than to share in what is purest and most perfect; and the most perfect of all things that exist is the knowledge of God. Let us, then, hold on to what we have and acquire what we can, as long as we live on earth; and let us store our treasure there in heaven, so that we may possess this reward of our labor: the full illumination of the holy Trinity—what it is, its qualities and its greatness, if I may put it this way—shining in Christ himself, our Lord, to whom be glory and power for the ages of ages. Amen. (20.12)

I note the following:

1) Purification. As we have seen, this is a constant theme in St Gregory’s preaching. The Christian life is a life of continuous purification of body and soul. “What is pure,” Gregory reminds us, “can only be acquired through purification.” I am reminded of the first of Martin Luther’s 95 theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Obviously repentance above all applies to anyone who aspires to think well and accurately about God and to grow in the knowledge of God. We begin, Gregory tells us, with the keeping of the commandments and the living of faithful, virtuous lives in the service of Christ Jesus. We must become a “living temple of the living God” if we would dare to approach the Holy of Holies.

2) Humility and the acceptance of our finite limitations. Even if you are a clever, well-trained philosopher, still you your mind cannot comprehend, and in this life will never comprehend, the infinite Creator. The words of the Apostle Paul govern our present knowledge of the living God: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).

3) Patient hope in the eschatological fullness of our knowledge of God. Now we see only partly, but the Apostle promises that we will one day know God as we are presently known by God. This is the Kingdom of Heaven, the full illumination of the Holy Trinity, “what it is, its qualities and its greatness.” The life of the theologian is thus driven by eschatological hope and reward. In the meantime, we should be patient: “Grasp what you can, and pray to grasp the rest. Love what already abides within you, and let the rest await you in the treasury above.”

(Go to Part 3)

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