Not Knowing–yet Knowing–the Incomprehensible God (part 3)

If for Eunomius God is unbegotten essence, perhaps one might say that for St Gregory of Nazianzus God is incomprehensible essence. This does not mean that Gregory is simply substituting one exclusive name for another, nor does it mean that Gregory agrees with the Eunomian theory of names. Gregory understands language as a product of human thought and creativity, grounded in the observation of the world. There is thus a crucial distinction between names and reality. Names do not reveal, define, or encapsulate reality; they point beyond themselves to the realities they signify. Their referential relation to the world, natural and spiritual, is conventional, not essential. In Gregory’s words: “real truth is contained in realities, not in names” (Or 29.13; see Frederick Norris, Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning, pp. 33-34, 192). If the essence of God is ineffable and undefinable, as the Cappadocian Fathers believed, it cannot be truly named; hence there can be no one, exclusive descriptive term for God. All words for the divine fail, to one degree or another. No single name provides “an all-embracing revelation of God’s essential being” (28.9). God most certainly is unbegotten; but he is also incorporeal, unoriginate, immutable, uncreated, and immortal. These are negative terms. They tell us what God is not; but they do not tell us what God is (28.9). Yet true knowledge, Gregory insists, also requires positive affirmations:

Just as predicating “is body” or “is begotten” of something or other where these predicates are applicable is not enough clearly to set out the thing but you must also, if an object of knowledge is to be displayed with adequate clarity, give the predicates their subject; (men, cows, and horses, you see are “corporeal,” “begotten,” and “mortal”) so, in the same way, an inquirer into the nature of a real being cannot stop short at saying what it is not but must add to his denials a positive affirmation (and how much easier it is to take in a single thing than to run the full gamut of particular negations!). The point of this is that comprehension of the object of knowledge should be effected both by negation of what the thing is not and also by positive assertion of what it is. A person who tells you what God is not but fails to tell you what he is, is rather like someone who, asked what twice five are, answers “not two, not three, not four, not five, not twenty, not thirty, no number, in short, under ten or over ten.” He does not deny it is ten, but he is also not settling the questioner’s mind with a firm answer. It is much simpler, much briefer, to indicate all that something is not by indicating what it is, than to reveal what it is by denying what it is not. (28.9)

This is a surprising passage. Given everything that Gregory has said about the divine incomprehensibility, one does not expect him to criticize Eunomius for not employing a cataphatic approach to theology. It’s one thing to reject an exclusive naming of God, as if we can perfectly comprehend the divine essence through the term “unbegotten,” and to insist that “unbegotten” is just one of many negative terms that may be appropriately used of God. But is Gregory actually telling us that negative theology must be accompanied, and perhaps even fulfilled, in a positive theology? How is that possible? Does that not contradict everything we know about the apophaticism of Byzantine theology?

Perhaps the best way to proceed is to first recall the polemical nature of the Theological Orations. These discourses do not present a balanced systematic theology. Their purpose is to refute the dangerous heresies that were threatening the mission and life of the Church in the late 4th century. Hence when Gregory claims in Oration 28 that we absolutely cannot comprehend the essence of God, he may not intend his language to be understood absolutely:

Although Nazianzen insists that God’s nature is incomprehensible, he is willing to make general statements about God that were a part of his Christian and Greek heritage. He does not deny all assertions about deity, only those from his Arian opponents that demand God’s essence be encapsulated and clearly expressed in his being “unbegotten.” For Gregory, God’s titles could be gathered under the categories of power and providential ordering and related subsets under incarnational or non-incarnational acts. He can say positive things about God’s economy that indicates certain aspects of God himself. On this basis Gregory refuses to say only what God is not; he rejects a via negativa. Any speaker must eventually say what the subject is. What Nazianzen combats is the later Arian one-word definition of the divine essence, as if all other words or statements of Scripture and tradition either must be viewed as synonymous with it or must be deduced from it. God’s nature, for him, is not so incomprehensible that God’s existence, goodness, power, providential ordering and his lack of composition, conflict, disorder and dissolution are unknown. (Norris, p. 41)

St Gregory is easily misunderstood (a) if the polemical context of the Theological Orations is forgotten, (b) if the Orations are not read within the wider corpus of Gregory’s writings, and (c) if Gregory is not read on his own terms and instead is simply seen as repeating the views of his fellow Cappadocian theologians or St Gregory Palamas.

When the Theologian claims that the divine being cannot be known, he must not be interpreted as saying that the divine being is definitively and utterly unknowable. Rather, he is denying a “complete comprehension” of the divine being (28.3—emphasis added). Gregory does not deny that the biblical saints were given a vision of God; he only denies that they “had taken in the nature, the total vision, of God” (28.18). For Gregory, comprehension expresses cognitive mastery of the object, perfect apprehension, complete knowledge. But the infinite Deity cannot be so grasped and captured by the minds of his creatures. The divine being is inexhaustible. In his goodness God generously presents himself to humanity to be known (28.11), yet there is always more to be known. The absolute mystery that is the Holy Trinity can never be plumbed. Christopher Beeley elaborates further on this important point:

Because we cannot know all of God’s infinite essence, it can also be said that we are unable to know God’s essence at all. Such statements of pure unknowability are rare in Gregory’s work; the fact that he is so often taken to mean that humans do not know God’s essence at all is an indication of the extent to which the Theological Orations have been the exclusive focus of Gregorian scholarship. Even in Oration 28, where the idea is most prominent, Gregory carefully qualifies his meaning, arguing that the question of our knowledge of God has to do primarily with our inability to encompass God’s full magnitude, which he typically expresses in the language of comprehension. In the statement quoted above—”The Deity is not graspable by the human intellect; neither can the entirety of its magnitude be imagined” (28.11)—the second clause specifies the first, setting the idea of comprehension (or grasping) within the conceptuality of divine magnitude. And so Gregory concludes Oration 28 in these terms, saying that the nature of God’s being is “greater than our understanding” (28.31). The same point applies to statements that we cannot “know” God or speak about God at all; for example, in Gregory’s reversal of Plato’s dictum: “It is impossible to express God; but to understand him is even more impossible” (28.4). For Gregory God is ineffable not because we cannot say anything about him or express his nature with any certainty, but because we could never possibly express all of what God is. Even though much of what is believed and said about God is true, because we cannot express all of God’s nature God is in that sense “unspeakable.” To conclude from such statements that we do not know or cannot make true statements about God’s essence at all greatly exaggerates Gregory’s apophaticism and misses the ultimate purpose of his doctrine, which is to show how Christians do know God. (Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God, pp. 98-99)

In light of the above analysis, we can now return to the story of Gregory’s contemplative ascent into the cloud of unknowing (28.3). Gregory describes how he sought to envision the essence of God and acquire perfect knowledge of divinity; but this perfect knowledge always eluded him. Gregory’s description of his ascent is typically interpreted as an emphatic expression of the apophatic character theology. After all, Gregory does not see the face of God; he does not see the “first and pure nature.” But what is sometimes missed is that Gregory does in fact see God. He sees that “part” of the divine nature that is “posterior and comes down to us”; he apprehends the divine glory. He may not have encountered divinity in utter fullness and thus may not be able to provide a definition of the divine essence; but he has met and communed with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He has known the Deity in his self-communication, as “manifested among the creatures that he has produced and governs.” This may not be total knowledge; but it is real and authentic knowledge nonetheless. Perhaps we might describe it as a sacramental knowing. Gregory invokes the metaphor of the reflection of the sun on a body of water (28.3). We cannot look at the sun directly—it is too bright for our weak eyes—but in its reflection we do see the sun, if only indirectly and in attenuated form. The power of the light is diminished, but the light is still the same light, albeit “a small beam from a great light” (28.17).

The story of Gregory’s Sinai theophany in Oration 28 should be read alongside Gregory’s more positive account of our knowledge of God in Oration 38:

God always was and is and will be, or rather always “is,” for “was” and “will be” belong to our divided time and transitory nature; but he is always “he who is,” and he gave himself this name when he consulted with Moses on the mountain. For holding everything together in himself, he possesses being, neither beginning nor ending. He is like a kind of boundless and limitless sea of being, surpassing all thought and time and nature. He is only sketched by the mind, and this in a very indistinct and mediocre way, not from things pertaining to himself but from things around him. Impressions are gathered from here and there into one particular representation of the truth, which flees before it is grasped and escapes before it is understood. It illumines the directive faculty in us, when indeed we have been purified, and its appearance is like a swift bolt of lightning that does not remain. It seems to me that insofar as it is graspable, the divine draws [us] toward itself, for what is completely ungraspable is unhoped for and unsought. Yet one wonders at the ungraspable, and one desires more intensely the object of wonder, and being desired it purifies, and purifying it makes deiform, and with those who have become such he converses as with those close to him—I speak with vehement boldness—God is united with gods, and he is thus known, perhaps as much as he already knows those who are known to him. (38.7)

God is boundless, incomparable, infinite Being, surpassing time and space and all creaturely existence. In his self-communication he is apprehended by the purified human mind in limited fashion, yet he is nonetheless truly apprehended. If God were totally ungraspable, we would never seek him; yet he gives himself to us to be grasped, however partially, in order to draw us to himself in wonder and love. “God’s transcendent being overflows, as it were, into our knowledge of him,” writes Beeley, “so that, while God’s infinitude is always a limiting factor, the result is a direct and continuous relationship between God’s being and the human knowledge of God” (p. 107). In 383 St Gregory delivered his final paschal homily. Once again he speaks of the theophany of Sinai: “For indeed on the mountain itself God appears to human beings, as he himself descends from his own height while leading us up from the lowliness below, that the Incomprehensible might be comprehended at least in the measure possible and as far as is safe for mortal nature” (45.11).

A Christian theologian may and indeed must speak of the nature of God, even though the divine essence is unnameable and surpasses all human understanding. He may do so because Holy Scripture authoritatively and reliably speaks to us of the incomprehensible God and its witness is confirmed in contemplative experience. The noblest theologian is one who is able to pull together all the attributes of God depicted in the Bible into a coherent and convincing picture:

The Deity cannot be expressed in words. And this is proved to us, not only by argument, but by the wisest and most ancient of the Hebrews, so far as they have given us reason for conjecture. For they appropriated certain characters to the honour of the Deity, and would not even allow the name of anything inferior to God to be written with the same letters as that of God, because to their minds it was improper that the Deity should even to that extent admit any of His creatures to a share with Himself. How then could they have admitted that the invisible and separate Nature can be explained by divisible words? For neither has any one yet breathed the whole air, nor has any mind entirely comprehended, or speech exhaustively contained the Being of God. But we sketch Him by His Attributes, and so obtain a certain faint and feeble and partial idea concerning Him, and our best Theologian is he who has, not indeed discovered the whole, for our present chain does not allow of our seeing the whole, but conceived of Him to a greater extent than another, and gathered in himself more of the Likeness or adumbration of the Truth, or whatever we may call it. (Or 30.17)

“For Gregory,” Beeley explicates, “the limited terms of Christian speech are necessary and truly signify with their actual meanings, even as they transcend themselves in the process” (p. 96).

Yet I am still left wondering where Jesus Christ fits into all of this. As the incarnate Word is he not the mediator and embodiment of our knowledge of the Holy Trinity? Given that the principal purpose of Oration 28 is to refute the claim of Eunomius to comprehend the essence of God, perhaps the relative absence of Christ in the discourse is understandable, yet the presentation still feels unbalanced. How can we talk about the divine incomprehensibility without assessing and interpreting this incomprehensibility through God’s self-revelation in his incarnate Son. Gregory provides an important christological hint in the narrative of his Sinai theophany: he explicitly identifies the sheltering rock as “the Word that was made flesh for us” (28.3). “The vision of God is only possible by, and remains rooted to, Jesus Christ,” explains John Behr; “he is the rock which anchors our illumination in the cloud of divine darkness” (The Nicene Faith, II:338).

The question of the ground and source of our positive knowledge of God remains, though. If negative theology is insufficient, if it is also necessary not only to say what God is not but to say what God is, how do we do that? To answer this question we need to step outside the Five Theological Orations. In Oration 37, delivered in the winter of 380, Gregory speaks of the importance of Jesus Christ for our knowledge of God:

And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them there, where the multitude was greater. If He had abode upon His own eminence, if He had not condescended to infirmity, if He had remained what He was, keeping Himself unapproachable and incomprehensible, a few perhaps would have followed Him—perhaps not even a few, possibly only Moses—and He only so far as to see with difficulty the Back Parts of God. For He penetrated the cloud, either being placed outside the weight of the body or being withdrawn from his senses; for how could he have gazed upon the subtlety, or the incorporeity, or I know not how one should call it, of God, being incorporate and using material eyes? But inasmuch as He strips Himself for us, inasmuch as He comes down (and speak of an exinanition, as it were, a laying aside and a diminution of His glory), He becomes by this comprehensible. (Or 37.3)

In the Incarnation the ineffable Deity becomes approachable, even comprehensible. If the eternal Son had remained hidden in himself, sharing himself only in theophanic mystery, few would have followed him, “perhaps not even a few.” But the Son has taken upon himself human existence and thus made himself and his salvation accessible to all who come to him in faith. As St Gregory proclaims in his homily on the Feast of Lights, God takes on what he was not “so that the incomprehensible one might be comprehended” (39.13). Perhaps, following T. F. Torrance, we may wish to speak here of the “positive ineffability” of God, “for it is in making himself actually known to us through the Son and in the Spirit that God reveals himself as infinitely greater than we can conceive” (The Trinitarian Faith, p. 214).

But perhaps St John the Theologian says it best of all: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

(Return to first article)

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6 Responses to Not Knowing–yet Knowing–the Incomprehensible God (part 3)

  1. “Not knowing” is such an uncomfortable feeling – I think we prefer to hide from it. But I think refusing to hide from it is close to the heart of the knowledge of God. Thank you for such good work!


  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have added an important passage from Or 30.17. One of the advantages of blogging is unlimited revision. 🙂


  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Just in case you might have missed it, I direct readers to the helpful comment by Dr Phillip Cary.


  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    A reader suggested that I might want to clarify and tighten up the first paragraph on Gregory’s conventional understanding of language and reference. I have thus rewritten the first paragraph, but I confess that I my grasp of the matter is limited. I am completely dependent here on Norris.


  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    “Gregory does not accept the relationship between language and reality that the later Arians do. For him reality is not in the name. He shares one part of an Epicurean view of language which sees that the truth rests in the things that underlie the words, the pragmata (Or 29.13 and Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus 37 and 75). For Nazianzen language continues to be an approximation of the real, the first stage that Epicurus describes for words. Gregory, however, depends upon Aristotle’s claim (On Interpretation 16A-B) that nouns signify things according to convention or arbitrary designation.” (Frederick W. Norris, Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning, p. 192)


  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have just received today through inter-library loan a copy of Andrew Radde-Gallwitz’s book Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity. I have spent the past couple of hours perusing it. I intend to read it as well as I can sometime in the next six weeks; but from what I can tell, it offers indirect support for Norris’s and Beeley’s construals of Nazianzen’s understanding of divine incomprehensibility. The Cappadocians simply were not neo-Palamites. They had a profound appreciation of the mystery of God and of the limits of human knowing; but they also believed that God had made himself known in Holy Scripture and the works of creation (read in light of Holy Scripture) and that we could make true positive statements about the incomprehensible divine ousia.


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