St Gregory the Theologian: Oration 20 (part 3)


St Gregory now comes to the heart of Oration 20: a succinct presentation of the Nicene understanding of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity: “So we adore the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, dividing their individualities [hypostases] but uniting their godhead; and we neither blend the three into one thing, lest we be sick with Sabellius’s disease, nor do we divide them into three alien and unrelated things, lest we share Arius’s madness” (20.5). Gregory locates the orthodox understanding of God between two heretical extremes. On the one side there is the heresy of modalism, in which the Father, Son, and Spirit are understood to be temporal manifestations of one undifferentiated Deity. The historic representative of modalism was the third century heretic Sabellius, but in Gregory’s time a view akin to modalism was also being taught by Marcellus of Ancyra. On the other side there is the heresy of Arianism, which ontologically subordinates the Son and Spirit to the one God. The historic representative of subordinationism was the African priest Arius, whose teachings on Christ were dogmatically rejected at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Various forms of Arianism, however, continued to thrive in the Eastern Empire after Nicaea. The best known exponent of an extreme version was Eunomius, against whom St Gregory would direct much of his rhetorical energy. We will explore Eunomius’s theology in greater detail when we come to the Five Theological Orations.

At this point in his oration St Gregory begins to discourse about about God in his essential trinitarian reality, independent of creation and in abstraction from the economy of salvation. He is going to talk about what modern theologians call the immanent or essential Trinity. The importance of this controversial move cannot be exaggerated. There is no reason for anyone to speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, much less believe in and adore them, except for the story of salvation that we find in the Bible. But the catholic theologians of the 4th century realized that if they were going to decisively defeat the various subordinationist heresies flooding the Church, then they had to find a way to speak of the Deity as being Holy Trinity apart from the world he has freely chosen to create from out of nothing, apart even from the biblical narrative. Even if God had never made the world, he would still be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God might have chosen not to “become” Creator; but he is eternally, and necessarily, triune. We must therefore distinguish between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity. Georges Florovsky states the theological principle:

God cannot but be the Trinity of persons. The Triad of Hypostases is above the Divine Will, is, as it were, “a necessity” or “law” of the Divine nature. This internal “necessity” is expressed as much in the notion of the “consubstantiality” as in that of the perfect indivisibility of the Three Persons as They co-exist in and intercompenetrate one another. In the judgment of St. Maximus the Confessor, it would be unfitting and fruitless to introduce the notion of will into the internal life of the Godhead for the sake of defining the relations between the Hypostases, because the Persons of the All-Holy Trinity exist together above any kind of relation and action, and by Their Being determine the relations between Themselves. The common and undivided “natural” will of God is free. God is free in His operations and acts. And therefore for a dogmatic confession of the reciprocal relations between the Divine Hypostases, expressions must be found such as will exclude any cosmological motives, any relation to created being and its destinies, any relation to creation or re-creation. The ground of Trinitarian being is not in the economy or revelation of God ad extra. The mystery of the intra-Divine life should be conceived in total abstraction from the dispensation; and the hypostatic properties of the Persons must be defined apart from all relationship to the existence of creation, and only according to the relationship that subsists between Themselves. (“Creation and Creaturehood,” Collected Works, III:69-70)

Florovsky’s concern is to protect the freedom of God. The world is not a necessary emanation from the Deity, as in Neo-Platonism. It might not have been. Hence Florovksy’s insistence that our theological reflection on the trinitarian life of God must exclude “any relation to creation or re-creation.” A separation between the immanent and economic Trinities, though, raises important questions and is not without its dangers. How is it possible for creatures to speak responsibly of the inner life of the Triune God apart from the revelation of that life within the world? Is the God who loves and saves us in Jesus Christ different from the ineffable Deity in his eternal being? What is the relationship between the eternal processions and the temporal missions of divine persons of the Trinity? The separation between the immanent and economic Trinities would eventually have deleterious consequences for medieval Western theology, which various 20th century theologians have sought to correct (Barth, Rahner, Pannenberg, Jenson, Moltmann, LaCugna). Orthodox theologian David B. Hart has recently criticized contemporary Eastern theology for claiming that “the Trinitarian relations as revealed in the economy of salvation are distinct from the eternal relations of the immanent Trinity. This is theologically disastrous, and in fact subversive of the entire Eastern patristic tradition of Trinitarian dogma. Were this claim sound, there would be absolutely no basis for Trinitarian theology at all” (“The Myth of Schism,” in Ecumenism Today, p. 100). In any case, in response to the Arian challenge, orthodox theologians in the 4th century began to reflect on the inner trinitarian life of God and to speculate on what precisely distinguishes the three divine hypostases from each other, without compromising the unity of the Godhead.

Why is modalism wrong? Because, Gregory answers, it lumps the three together into one hypostasis and so leaves us “with mere names, as we suppose Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the same individual. That would suggest we were just as ready to define all of them as one as we were to think each of them is nothing: for they would escape from being what they are, if they were to change and be transformed into each other” (20.6). If modalism is true, then in fact the biblical story of the Father and Jesus of Nazareth and the Spirit poured out upon the Church on Pentecost tells us nothing about the one God as he truly is. The Creator remains hidden behind his temporal manifestations, just as the playwright remains hidden behind the actors on the stage. If modalism is true, God has not revealed himself in Jesus Christ. He remains the unknown deity of the Athenians (Acts 17).

Why is subordinationism wrong? Because, Gregory answers, it gives us three hypostases of dissimilar substances—the unbegotten Deity (Father) and two created beings (Son and Spirit). The result is that the Father is alienated from the Son and his divine paternity cancelled. “For whose Father would he be,” asks Gregory, “if the Son’s nature is alienated from him, and made into something else, through this talk of creation?” (20.6). In other words, if the Son is a created being, then there was a “time” when God was not Father. Clearly this is not an adequate answer in itself. A full answer would require Gregory to explain that if the Son were a created being, he could not elevate us into the divine life of the Trinity. Our salvation, in other words, requires the consubstantiality of the Son. But Gregory is limiting his reflections to theologia, i.e., to the immanent Trinity, and so is content simply to point out that if Arianism is true, then God in his inner being is not Father, Son, and Spirit: he is only undifferentiated deity. Note how Arianism collapses into modalism.

Orthodox and Arians both agree: the Son is “from” the Father; the Father is his origin and source. But, St Gregory argues, the eternal generation of the Son by the Father is totally different from the act of creation. It is an act, if we may put it this way, that timelessly and incorporeally occurs on an uncreated level. There is a way to be divine and yet be originated. “When I speak of ‘origin,’ Gregory explains, “do not insert there a notion of time, nor put some third thing in between the begetter and the begotten, nor divide the divine nature by mistakenly including something else with those two, who are equally eternal and fully joined” (20.7). Does this mean there are two (or three) Gods? No, because the unbegotten Father is the cause of the Son’s (and Spirit’s) eternal existence, who bestows upon the Son (and Spirit) the entirety of the divine essence:

Nor should we minimize the Father’s rank as ultimate cause, insofar as he is Father and begetter (for he would be the cause of minor and unworthy beings, if he were not cause of the divinity that we recognize in the Son and the Spirit). If, then, we must necessarily hold on to the one God, while confessing the three hypostases, surely we must speak of three Persons, each one with its own distinctive properties. So, according to my argument, the unity of God would be preserved, and Son and Spirit would be referred back to one original cause, but not compounded or blended with each other; their unity would be based on the single, self-identical movement and will of the divine being, if I may put it that way, and on identity of substance. (20.6-7)

St Gregory is clear throughout his orations: the Holy Trinity is one because the Father is the eternal cause of the Son and Spirit. “The three are God when known together,” states Gregory, “each God because of the consubstantiality, one God because of the monarchy” (40.41). Gregory solves the question of divine unity by thinking together consubstantiality and the monarchy of the Father. The one God is God the Father, just as we confess in the Nicene Creed: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty.” The one God generates the existence of the eternal Son; the one God generates the existence of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is fully divine because he is identical in being with the Father; the Holy Spirit is fully divine because he is identical in being with the Father. It is not as if the three Persons equally possess a generic divine essence (as is often thought to be the view of St Gregory Nyssen); rather, the Son and Spirit each possess the essence of the Father. As John McGuckin writes, “Gregory consistently sees the divine being as the Father’s own being, which he personally communicates to the hypostases of the Son and Spirit” (Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, p. 294, n. 352).

We will return to the topic of the divine monarchy in a later post, as it is a subject upon which there is much scholarly debate. Gregory’s comments on the divine monarchy are not always clear. At times he seems to intimate that the divine monarchy belongs to the Godhead as a whole. The Minstrel of the Trinity is often quite fluid and flexible in his use of language. He knows that the mystery of the Holy Trinity surpasses all human comprehending. Our language cannot capture the reality that is God.

But, St Gregory’s hearers cry out, we do not understand all this talk of begetting and proceeding. Of course you do not, the Theologian tells them. Neither do I. So stop your curious prying. Do not trouble yourself further with how the eternal generation of the Son and Spirit occurs. These matters are above us. There are so many mysteries of the natural order that we cannot grasp, so “how do you suppose you can know with accuracy what and how great God is? This is really a lot of foolishness!” (20.11). We do enjoy our foolishness, don’t we?

For a brief statement of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity from an Eastern perspective, see John Behr, “The Trinity: Scripture and the Greek Fathers.”

(Return to first article)

This entry was posted in Gregory Nazianzen. Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. elijahmaria says:

    What happens when we “see” the begetting as a manifestation of “relationship” and not an “act”…I have a hugely difficult time comprehending the generation of the Son by the Father as an Act of God. I think this really is the place where the east loses the west’s grasp of “Filioque”…


  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    “Act” is of course my word. I’m not sure what St Gregory would think of it, even after all the necessary apophatic qualifications. But it doesn’t seem completely and utterly inappropriate–after all, we speak of the Father as “begetting” the Son and as “spirating” the Spirit. Is it any more inappropriate to speak of the divine generations as “acts” as it is to speak of the divine “act” of creation? As Gregory makes clear in paragraph 9 of this oration, all of these words must be purified of creaturely significance and content. John McGuckin’s article “Perceiving Light from Light in Light” may be helpful here.


  3. elijahmaria says:

    I understand what you are saying here, and in loose terms I have no difficulty with it. But it is interesting that those who see the divine persons as existing in relationship, or defined by relationship if you will, seem to have much less difficulty with comprehending filioque in a non-threatening manner than those who see the hypostases as defined by actions…or acts. I think the section where you say that St. Gregory insists that we do not see the begetting in anything like an act of creation is pivotal in all of what I am thinking about aloud here.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mary, while reading John Behr’s discussion of St Basil, I came across the following statement which addresses the concern that you have raised about divine relation:

      “A ‘begetting worthy of God,’ according to Basil, is ‘without passion, without division, without separation and non-temporal.’ The Son’s ‘begetting,’ therefore, refers not so much to a discrete divine act as to the particular relationship in which the Son stands to the Father, one of derivation and identity of being” (Nicene Faith, II:309).

      St Gregory, I think, would agree with this. Does this answer your concern?


      • elijahmaria says:

        It responds precisely to my concerns!! Very affirming as well, which is truly helpful on occasion. Thank you so much for referencing it.


  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have added a few more sentences on modalism and subordinationism. It seems to me that the latter in essence collapses into the former. I think St Gregory would agree.


Comments are closed.