St Gregory Nazianzen and the Holy Spirit (part 2)

A few weeks after he delivered his homily “On the Arrival of the Egyptians” (Oration 34), St Gregory was given the perfect opportunity to further expand his teaching on the Holy Spirit: it was time to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost.

Oration 41 begins with several long paragraphs on the mystical significance of numbers, particularly the number seven. No doubt this held much interest for Gregory’s audience, but I suspect a modern audience would immediately fall asleep. Gregory’s discourse on the Spirit begins with §5. Invoking the assistance of the Spirit for his preaching, he immediately picks up on the distinction between dominion and servitude that he introduced in Oration 34:

As for what concerns the Spirit, may the Spirit assist me and give me speech, as much as I would like; but if not that much, as much as is fitting to the occasion. And he will assist entirely as a master, but not as a slave, not awaiting a command, as some suppose. For he blows where he wills, and upon whom, and whenever and however much he wishes. Thus we are inspired both to think and to speak about the Spirit. (41.5)

To be God is to be free. It is to enjoy boundless existence without constraint. God is Lord. He exercises absolute dominion and authority over all his creatures. That the Spirit is divine is demonstrated by the freedom that is his life and activity. He is not a slave. No one commands him. He blows where he wills. He enjoys the same transcendent freedom as the Father and the Son. He is Lord. He is Creator Spiritus. He is God.

But Gregory is aware that many in his congregation are still unsure about the clear identification of the Holy Spirit as God. They share the reticence of the Pneumatomachoi and are scandalized by Gregory’s forthright speech. Yes, they agree with the Nicene affirmation of the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son, but the Scriptures are ambiguous, so they believed, about the identity of the Spirit. Gregory knows that he is unlikely to persuade those who have embraced a Neo-Arian subordinationism, whether Eunomian or Homoian. These he dismisses as blasphemers. But he still hopes to converse with those of Pneumatomachian conviction and persuade them of the Lordship of the Spirit.

“For I am persuaded,” he tells them, “that you have some participation in the Spirit and as our kin are already examining the question with us. Either show me the midpoint between slavery and lordship, that I may place the Holy Spirit there, or if you flee slavery, there is no doubt about where to rank the one we seek” (41.7). Gregory begs his congregation not to quibble about words. Somewhat surprisingly, he encourages them to at least embrace a position similar to that of St Basil’s, in the expectation that if they are willing to assert the divinity of the Spirit, they will eventually be led by the Spirit to proclaim him as consubstantial with the Father. “Confess, my friends, the Trinity as one divinity, and, if you will, one nature; and we will ask the Spirit to give you the word ‘God'” (41.8).

St Gregory then presents this magnificent description of the Holy Spirit:

The Holy Spirit always was and is and will be, without beginning, without end, but is always ranked and numbered with the Father and the Son. For it was not at any time fitting that the Son be lacking to the Father, or the Spirit to the Son. For it would have been the greatest dishonor for the divinity to have come, as it were through a change of mind to a fullness of perfection. Hence the Spirit always is participated in but does not participate, perfects but is not perfected, fills but is not filled, sanctifies but is not sanctified, deifies but is not deified. He is always the same as himself and as those with whom he is ranked, invisible, eternal, uncontainable, unchanging, without quality, without quantity, without form, intangible, self-moving, ever-moving, self-determining, self-powered, all-powerful. If indeed this pertains to the first cause, as it is all ascribed to the Only-begotten so it is also ascribed to the Spirit. He is life and creates life, he is light and distributes light, he is the goodness itself and source of goodness. He is the upright Spirit, sovereign, Lord; he sends, sets apart, builds a temple for himself, guides, acts as he wills, distributes gifts. He is the Spirit of adoption, of truth, of wisdom, of understanding, of knowledge, or piety, of counsel, of strength, of fears, as was enumerated, through whom the Father is known and the Son glorified, and by whom alone he is known. They are one common rank, one in adoration, worship, power, perfection, sanctification. Why should I speak at length? All that belongs to the Father belongs to the Son except unbegottenness. All that belongs to the Son belongs to the Spirit except begottenness. These do not divide the essence, according to my teaching, but they are divided in the [common] essence. (41.9)

Would St Basil have had any trouble with the claims made in this passage? I do not think so. Compare the following passage from On the Holy Spirit:

Who can listen to the Spirit’s titles and not be lifted up in his soul? Whose thoughts would not be raised to contemplate the supreme nature? He is called the Spirit of God, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, right Spirit, willing Spirit. His first and most proper title is Holy Spirit, a name most especially appropriate to everything which is incorporeal, purely immaterial, and indivisible. That is why the Lord taught the Samaritan woman, who thought that God had to be worshipped in specific places, that “God is Spirit.” He wanted to show that an incorporeal being cannot be circumscribed. When we hear the word “spirit” it is impossible for us to conceive of something whose nature can be circumscribed or is subject to change or variation, or is like a creature in any way. Instead, we are compelled to direct our thoughts on high, and to think of an intelligent being, boundless in power, of unlimited greatness, generous in goodness, whom time cannot measure. All things thirsting for holiness turn to Him; everything living in virtue never turns away from Him. He waters them with His life-giving breath and helps them reach their proper fulfillment. He perfects all other things, and Himself lacks nothing; He gives life to all things, and is never depleted. He does not increase by additions, but is always complete, self-established, and present everywhere. He is the source of sanctification, spiritual light, who gives illumination to everyone using His powers to search for the truth—and the illumination He gives us is Himself. His nature is unapproachable; only through His goodness are we able to draw near it. He fills all things with His power, but only those who are worthy may share it. He distributes His energy in proportion to the faith of the recipient, not confining it to a single share. He is simple in being; His powers are manifold: they are wholly present everywhere and in everything. He is distributed but does not change. He is shared, yet remains whole. Consider the analogy of the sunbeam: each person upon whom its kindly light falls rejoices as if the sun existed for him alone, yet it illumines land and sea, and is master of the atmosphere. In the same way, the Spirit is given to each one who receives Him as if he were the possession of that person alone, yet he sends forth sufficient grace to fill all the universe. Everything that partakes of His grace is filled with joy according to its capacity—the capacity of its nature, not of His power. (22)

If the above is true, the Holy Spirit must be God and consubstantial with the Father, even if Basil is reluctant to affirm this publicly.

But there may be differences between the pneumatological views of Gregory and Basil. Christopher Beeley explains:

Scholars have long been inclined to assume—for the sake of preserving the harmony between two venerable fathers of the Church, if nothing else—that their doctrines of the Spirit are for all intents and purposes the same, or nearly so. Yet if we look more deeply to determine exactly what Basil means by the Spirit’s divinity, we find that there are greater points of difference than simply whether or not one employs the words “God” and “consubstantial.” Basil associates the Spirit chiefly with the work of sanctification and the inculcation of virtue. Although he argues that the Spirit must not be conceived as a creaturely servant, but as sharing in the kingship of the Creator-Lord, the Spirit does not in fact fully share with the Father and the Son in the creation of all things, but merely perfects them. The Father is the first cause of all things, by willing their existence; the Son is the creative cause that brings them into being; and the Spirit is the perfecting cause of rational beings; so that their respective roles in creation are distinguished both in terms of function (willing, creating, perfecting) and scope (the Father and Son create all things; the Spirit perfects rational beings). (Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God, p. 298)

Among other differences, Beeley also instances their respective understandings of deification (p. 299). He suggests that Basil understands theosis in principally moral terms, whereas Gregory understands theosis as participation in the divine life and being of the Holy Trinity, which includes moral transformation. I lack the competence to offer an opinion, especially with regards to Basil; but let me at this point note that Gregory certainly does not object to the language of the perfecting work of the Spirit. He employs it on several occasions. But he also explicitly connects the Spirit to the divine work of creation:

This Spirit fashions together with the Son both the creation and the resurrection. Be persuaded by these texts: “By the Word of the Lord the heavens were established, and by the Spirit of his mouth all their power; “The divine Spirit created me, and the breath of the Almighty taught me”; and again, “You will send forth your Spirit and they will be created, and you will renew the face of the earth.” He also fashions the spiritual rebirth. Be persuaded by the text: “Nobody can see the kingdom or receive it unless he has been born from above by the Spirit,” unless he has been purified from his earlier birth, which is a mystery of the night, by a molding in the day and in the light, though which each is molded by his own choice. (41.14)

We will return to these questions when we finally come to Gregory’s famous homily on the Spirit, Oration 31.

Perhaps the most important passage in the Pentecost sermon is Gregory’s discussion of the Spirit’s modes of presence in rational creatures—41.11. First the Spirit acted in the angels, says Gregory, “for it is not from elsewhere that they possess their perfection and their illumination, and their difficulty or impossibility of moving toward evil, but from the Holy Spirit.” Then the Spirit acted in the patriarchs and prophets. To them he gave a knowledge of God. To some he also gave a foreknowledge of the future, allowing them to experience “future events as if they were present.” Finally the Spirit acted in the disciples of Christ, in three progressive stages:

First, before Christ was glorified by the passion, the Holy Spirit distributed specific gifts of supernatural ministry, e.g., healing of the sick and exorcism of demons. In this mode the Spirit was manifested only indistinctly.

Second, after Christ’s resurrection from the dead, he appeared to his disciples and breathed upon them (John 20). Gregory does not tell us how he interprets the significance of this inbreathing, but it is plainly a “more divine inspiration.”

Finally, the Spirit came down upon the disciples in fiery tongues on the day of Pentecost. The Pentecostal outpouring represents the Spirit coming to dwell in his Church in his very being and personhood:

The first manifested him indistinctly, the second more expressly, and the present one more perfectly, since he is no longer present [only] by an energy as at first, but in essence [οὐσιωδῶς], if one may speak thus, coming to be with them and living with them. For it was fitting, since the Son associated with us corporeally, that the Spirit also should appear corporeally; and after Christ ascended again to his own place, that he should descend to us, coming in that he is Lord, and sent in that he is not a rival god. For such words show the harmony no less than the separation of natures. (41.11)

Beeley offers the following interpretation of this very important passage in the light of the whole of Gregory’s theology:

Here Gregory identifies in very strong terms the reality of the Holy Spirit’s divine nature and its presence in the Church. Whereas Basil had argued that the activity, or energy, of the Spirit is present in the purified soul, Gregory is making the bolder claim that, in the age of the Church, the Holy Spirit now presents itself to believers as being fully divine and consubstantial with the Father—that it is present “in its very Being.” He then notes the parallel between the essential presence of the Spirit in the Church and that of Christ in the incarnation. Just as the Son took on bodily existence in order to dwell among us as a human being, so too the Spirit acquires a bodily manifestation, signified by the tongues of flame (though of course not a human incarnation), as it comes to dwell in the Church. And whereas Christ died a human death in order to redeem the world, the Holy Spirit is now “the mystery of new salvation” (14.27); and the divine economy has shifted from the bodily manifestation of Christ to that of the Holy Spirit (41.5). In this progressive “order of theology,” the direct revelation of the Spirit to the Church represents the apex of the human encounter with God thus far, so that by “gradual additions, and as David says, by ‘ascents’ (Ps 83.6 LXX) and advances and progress ‘from glory to glory’ (2 Cor 3.18), the light of the Trinity shines upon the more illuminated” (31.26). (pp. 172-173)

Essentially, substantively, in his very being—the Spirit is now intimately and personally present in the Church. Does this conviction not explain Gregory’s fierce commitment to the homoousion of the Spirit? We are talking nothing less than the vital and saving indwelling of the uncreated Deity in the life of the Church and the soul of the believer. The Spirit is present not just in his activities and energies, as he was present to the prophets of Israel and the disciples of Jesus before his passion and death. He has united himself to the Church in his very essence and being. At Pentecost God bestows God: the gift and giver are one.

Unfortunately, Gregory does not develop his understanding of the different modes of the Spirit’s presence (though he will speak further on the progressive revelation of the Spirit in Oration 31). Later theologians will reflect on this question and offer various explanations. Consider, for example, the view of Vladimir Lossky:

The operation of the Holy Spirit in the world before the Church and outside the Church is not, therefore, the same as His presence in the Church after Pentecost. As the Word, “by whom all things were made,” revealed the Wisdom of God in creation before He was sent into the world or entered its history through His Incarnation; so also the Holy Spirit (in whom the divine will—creator and upholder of the universe—was fulfilled from the moment of creation) was at a given moment sent into the world to be present there not only by His operation, common to all three Persons of the Trinity, but considered as Person. (The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, pp. 157-158)

Is Lossky saying the same thing here as St Gregory? I am not sure. Lossky is a strong proponent of the Palamite essence/energies distinction, a distinction that Gregory does not appear to hold. Gregory would certainly agree with Lossky’s statement that Pentecost is the revelation of the distinct hypostasis of the Spirit, but I’m uncertain whether Lossky would agree with St Gregory’s statement that at Pentecost the Spirit has come to be with the Church in his very being and essence. Is this just a difference in terminology?

(Go to Oration 31)

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4 Responses to St Gregory Nazianzen and the Holy Spirit (part 2)

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have not yet read this dissertation, but I certainly intend to before blogging on Oration 31: The Holy Spirit in the Life and Writings of Gregory of Nazianzus by Daniel Opperwall. I’m grateful that this dissertation is freely available on the web.


  2. Albert Sch. says:

    “I am not sure. Lossky is a strong proponent of the Palamite essence/energies distinction, a distinction that Gregory does not appear to hold.” Are you right, father?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Am I right? Heck if I know! 🙂 If you have some specific texts in mind where St Gregory asserts or intimates the Palamite distinction, please share them. I’m happy to be corrected. That’s why I’m blogging–to learn more.

      All I can say is that in my reading of St Gregory, I have yet to find a clear and explicit assertion of the Palamite distinction. The closest he comes (I think) is Or 28, where he denies that we can fully comprehend the essence of God; but even in this oration he does not explicitly invoke the distinction. Gregory’s position seems to be that while we can never define God’s being (as Eunomius thinks we can), God does give himself to us in such a way that we can know God in his being (but never exhaustively).

      Note in 41.11 Gregory says that the Spirit is present in the Church not just energetically but essentially. He also appears to believe that we will in the Kingdom know God in his being and that we know him at least a little at the present. The divine incomprehensibility is not absolute, as we have seen in the other orations I have blogged on. We will discuss this further when we come to the Theological Orations.

      I wonder if he and St Basil discussed the question. Surely he had read Basil’s writings against Eunomius. Perhaps he would have approved the Palamite formulation, once it was explained to him. See, for example, Alexis Torrance, “Precedents for Palamas’s Essence-Energies Theology.” But also compare Christopher Beeley’s discussion in his book on the Nazianzen. One of the strengths of St Gregory, I believe, is the fluidity of his language.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Albert, I was just scanning through David Bradshaw’s book *Aristotle East and West*. He believes that something along the lines of the Palamite essence/energies distinction can be found in St Gregory, e.g., when Gregory speaks of seeing the glory of God in Or 28.3 or when he speaks of the “things around God.” I’m not yet convinced that this language signifies an ontological distinction in God, but it is certainly a question that needs further investigation!


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