St Gregory Nazianzen as Confessional Theologian

As one reads the Theological Orations, and especially Orations 29 & 30, one realizes that St Gregory’s theological method differs considerably from that of Eunomius and his fellow Heterousians. Gregory sees Eunomius as subjecting the apostolic faith to a philosophical understanding of divinity. Eunomius is truly preaching a different faith. His God is not the God of the Holy Scriptures. It is a deity that Eunomius has inherited from the Hellenistic schools, adapted to a strict monadic monotheism. The Creator is unbegotten essence; to know the meaning of “unbegotten” is to comprehend its substance. This apprehension becomes a foundational principle in Eunomius’s theological system and allows him to formally deduce various theological positions, the most controversial being the reduction of the status of Jesus Christ to that of creature. For the Neo-Arians, theology is propositional and syllogism is the primary mode of argument.

In Gregory’s judgment, Eunomius does not and cannot properly discern the revelation of God because he interprets the Holy Scriptures through the prism of his philosophical preconceptions, including a faulty understanding of the relationship between human language and reality. The result is a literalistic, superficial, distorted, and ultimately heretical reading of the Bible. That Eunomius’s rationalistic methodology is flawed is demonstrated by the blasphemous conclusions that he draws. Gregory’s task in the Theological Orations is to attack not only the substance of Eunomius’s teachings but also his theological method and hermeneutic. He wants the Heterousians in his audience to step away from their scholasticism and experience the revelation of Christ in a fresh and liberating way. At the conclusion of Oration 29 he prays for his opponents: may God “untie the twisted knots of their strained dogmas” and “change these men and make them believers instead of logicians” (Or 29.21).

St Gregory stands before the assembly as a confessor of the Holy Trinity, the living God who has revealed himself in the Scriptures and the worship of the Church. Though Gregory is more than willing to employ his massive erudition and extensive training in philosophical rhetoric to expound the Christian faith and unveil the logical flaws in the Neo-Arian reasoning—the Theological Orations well demonstrate his mastery of Aristotelian logic—he is is very much aware of the inherent limitations of philosophy and dialectic in the elaboration of divine revelation. He will not allow the gospel to be held captive to an alien ideology or the technology of syllogism. We must come to God in the humility of faith, acknowledging the profound limitations of our cognitive powers.

For when we abandon faith to take the power of reason as our shield, when we use philosophical enquiry to destroy the credibility of the Spirit, then reason gives way in the face of the vastness of the realities. Give way it must, set going, as it is, by the frail organ of human understanding. What happens then? The frailty of our reasoning looks like a frailty in our creed. Thus it is that, as Paul too judges, smartness of argument is revealed as a nullifying of the Cross. Faith, in fact, is what gives fullness to our reasoning. (Or 29.21)

Faith gives fullness to our reasoning. Note here the constructive relationship between faith and reason. Gregory walks a middle way between biblical fideism and philosophical rationalism. His is not an ongoing battle between Jerusalem and Athens. Faith and reason are interwoven; but in matters theological, faith must take the lead (28.8). Gregory does not attempt to demonstrate the truth of the gospel on the basis of reason; he offers no philosophical justification for his doctrine of the Trinity. Even when he uses technical terms such as ousia and hypostasis, he does not define them by appeal to their meaning in any philosophical school. His linguistic usage is fluid and flexible, for he knows that words must be broken when employed to speak of ineffable realities. Whereas his opponents structure their theology upon philosophical system and deductive argument, Gregory proclaims the apostolic revelation of the Holy Trinity, using inductive reasoning to persuade his audience of its truth.

In his commentary on the Theological Orations, Frederick Norris discusses the two kinds of enthymeme analyzed in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. The first is a syllogism that is presented not in its typical “if”—”then” form but in the form “it is thus”—”for”; but despite the difference in formulation (the audience is expected to fill in the unspoken premise), it remains logically and formally demonstrative. The second is also expressed in the form of “it is thus”—”for”; but it deals with questions of probability. It is the difference between deductive demonstration and inductive presentation (Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning, pp. 18-19). Eunomius employs the enthymeme to advance his views as logically necessary conclusions; Nazianzen employs the enthymeme to support and elucidate the givens of divine revelation:

In line with his sense of theology as confessional, his understanding of revelation as not being subject to foundational demonstration, Gregory insists that at its heart, what a modern would call “apologetics” or “philosophical theology” must be seen as a matter of probability questions that demand the use of enthymemes as tools for handling issues. The enthymematic form which he chooses for certain basic questions, however, is the second one described by Aristotle, one that is not subject to formal syllogistic treatment. (pp. 101-102)

Gregory’s criticisms of Greek philosophers can be withering (e.g., Or 27.10), but on the whole he seems to follow the policy of Origen, in whose writings he had immersed himself. In his Letter to St Gregory Thaumaturgus, Origen speaks of despoiling the Egyptians, carefully extracting from Hellenistic philosophy that which is true and helpful to the service of the gospel. Nazianzen would later express his stance toward Greek culture in the apothegm “Avoid the thorns, pluck the roses.” Gregory urges discrimination and caution. His attitude may be described as critically positive (see Frederick Norris, “Of Thorns and Roses,” Church History 53 [Dec., 1984], 455-464). Gregory has absorbed the teaching of Aristotle on logic; but he understands that the mysteries of God cannot be proven by syllogistic reasoning. He is appreciative of Greek paideia and of the education he has received; but he firmly resists the subjugation of divine revelation to secular criteria. St Anselm’s famous words come to mind: “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.”

Norris describes St Gregory as a confessional theologian. This seems accurate, at least up to a point. Gregory is a man whose heart and mind has been profoundly informed by the study of Holy Scripture, by prayer, repentance, and fasting, and by the solitary contemplation of the holy mystery that is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. His orations are replete with biblical allusions and the language of Scripture. “He roots his position in the confession of his tradition and community: faith leads rather than reason. … Gregory is not a crude fideist,” Norris continues; “neither is he a rigid systematician nor a foundational apologist. What he embodies is the fides quarens intellectum stance of a Christian philosophical rhetorician” (p. 131).

Though I certainly do not want to push this suggestion too hard, in many ways Gregory appears to have practiced what George Lindbeck termed a “cultural-linguistic” approach to theology (see The Nature of Doctrine). Clearly Gregory does not understand doctrine as a series of logically connected propositions, drawn either from biblical exegesis, dogmatic definitions, or philosophical speculation. He is too aware both of the limits of human reason, even when trying to comprehend the natural order (see 28.22-30), and of the inadequacy of human language to speak of the transcendent Deity. Equally clearly he does not fit the category of experiential-expressivism. Doctrine for Gregory is not a symbolic expression of pre-conceptual religious experience or existential attitudes. Nazianzen enjoyed a rich mystical experience of the divine Creator, but it was an experience shaped by the economy of salvation and the sacramental life of the Church. “When I say ‘God,'” the Theologian declares, “I mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (38.8). Gregory’s theology speaks simultaneously both from the depths of Holy Tradition and from the depths of his own heart.

“So much radiance has the Trinity revealed to my eyes, from the wings and the veil within the divine temple, beneath which God’s royal nature lies hid. And if something extra is for the angelic choirs, let the Trinity know what this extra is” (Poem on the Holy Spirit 90).

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4 Responses to St Gregory Nazianzen as Confessional Theologian

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Before I went to bed last night, I glanced at this article again, and to my embarrassment I discovered several typos, grammatical errors, repeated words, etc. I guess I was just in a rush to “go to print,” after so many hours (I mean days) working on this short piece. Oh well. Anyway, I’ve cleaned it up and it should now read better–if that matters to anyone other than me. 🙂


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  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    William Barclay quotes a lengthy passage from Gregory of Nazianzus in his book Educational Ideals in the Ancient World (quoted in a dissertation by Jeff Voegtlin):

    Perfect yourself in studies, in the works of the historians, in the books of the poets, in the smooth-flowing eloquence of orators. Be versed too in the subtle disquisitions of philosophers. Have a prudent familiarity with all these, wisely culling from them all that is useful, carefully avoiding what is injurious in each, imitating the practice of the wise bee which alights on every flower, but with infinite wisdom sucks only what is useful from each. She has nature itself for preceptor. Do you then, acting with reason, take largely from what is beneficial; but if anything be injurious, the moment you realize that, take wing in flight. The human mind is swift of flight. Whatever they have to say in praise of virtue, or again in censure of vice, do you earnestly study it, assimilate the thought and the charm of style. But their nonsensical writings about the gods, the obscene myths, the teaching of demons, laughable merely, or fit to move one to tears, avoid these as you would a trap or snare. Meeting in your reading both their theology and their eloquence, the former ridiculous, the latter charming, despise their pleasure-loving deities, but respect their eloquence. Pluck the rose, but shun the thorns, the same tree bears both. These are the best principles with regard to profane learning. (pp. 222-223)

    I do not know if the passage is authentic, as I have not been able to confirm it. Perhaps one of my readers can confirm, or disconfirm, its authenticity.


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