“The monarchy of God the Father,” avers Christopher Beeley, “is thus the foundational principle of Trinitarian logic, the fundamental dynamic that gives meaning to the grammatical aspects of unity and distinctness within the Trinity, and also the basic shape of the divine economy, by which the eternal God is known” (Gregory of Nazianzus, p. 217). But it’s important for readers to know that there exists a body of scholarship that challenges this construal of Nazianzen’s trinitarian theology. Beeley surveys the debate in his article on the divine monarchy. I have not attempted to read the scholarship on this question, much of which remains inaccessible to those of us (like me) who do not live near a seminary library or who do not read French, German, Greek, Russian, or whatever. All I can say is that I have found the the analysis presented by Beeley, McGuckin, and Behr to be persuasive; but I know there is another side. According to the alternative reading, Gregory does not consistently advocate the monarchy of the Father; rather, he asserts that the divine persons derive from the divine essence or from the Holy Trinity as a whole.
Consider, for example, this sentence from St Gregory’s Nativity homily referring to the Incarnate Christ: “On the one hand he is and is eternally from the eternal Being, above cause and principle, for there was no principle higher than the Principle” (38.3). Who or what is the “eternal Being”? Who or what is the “Principle”? Is Gregory thinking of the Father? the Trinity? the divine ousia abstracted from the divine persons? The sentence in itself is unclear.
The most important piece of evidence is found in Gregory’s Fifth Theological Oration:
We have one God because there is a single Godhead. Though there are three objects of belief, they derive from the single whole and have reference to it. They do not have degrees of being God or degrees of priority over against one another. They are not sundered in will or divided in power. You cannot find there any of the properties inherent in things divisible. To express it succinctly, the Godhead exists undivided in beings divided. It is as if there were a single intermingling of light, which existed in three mutually connected Suns. When we look at the Godhead, the primal cause, the sole sovereignty, we have a mental picture of the single whole, certainly. But when we look at the three in whom the Godhead exists, and at those who derive their timeless and equally glorious being from the primal cause, we have three objects of worship. (31.14—trans. Wickham)
Nazianzen can be read here as saying that the Father, Son, and Spirit derive their identities from the Godhead. Thomas F. Torrance argues that Gregory departs from the Cappadocian understanding of the monarchia and moves toward a more Athanasian position: the monarchy “is not limited to one Person: it is a Unity constituted in and by the Trinity” (The Trinitarian Faith, p. 321). And again: “This means that the Trinity as a whole must be thought of as the one divine Principle or arche” (p. 321, n. 94). Met. Hilarion Alfeyev offers a similar assessment:
As we have seen, the idea of God’s monarchy was fundamental to both Sabellius and Arius; the notion of the Son’s co-eternity with the Father was rejected by Arius precisely because he perceived in it a breach of the principle of the Father’s monarchy. For Arius, those who insist on the eternal begetting of the Son introduce ‘two unbegotten origins.’ Gregory opposed this understanding of monarchy and claimed that the term is not related to the Hypostasis of the Father, but to the Godhead as such, i.e. to the three Hypostases together. In other words, Gregory did not associate the idea of monarchy with the Father but with the unity of the Godhead. (“The Trinitarian Teaching of St. Gregory of Nazianzen,” in The Trinity: East/West Dialogue, p. 113; quoted by Articuli Fidei)
I find it difficult to reconcile the interpretations of Torrance and Alfeyev with the many other passages in Gregory’s orations, some of which I quoted in part 2 of this article, that clearly affirm the monarchy of God the Father. As the Theologian preached to the bishops of the 381 council, “The unity is the Father” (42.15). Hence I find it more likely that in the controverted passages Nazianzen is simply assuming that his audience will understand that when he speaks of the divine monarchy, without further specification, he is referring to the Father than that he is advancing a construal of the Trinity that his hearers probably would not have recognized. I especially deem it improbable that Gregory is decisively separating himself from his fellow Cappadocians (as well as Origen) on this point. The evidence simply does not warrant such a conclusion.
Wickham’s translation above of 31.14 certainly seems to support the thesis that Gregory locates the monarchy in the Trinity as a whole; but consider Behr’s translation of the same passage:
We have one God, for the divinity is one, and, though we believe in three, those who derive from the one incline towards him. One is not more, and another less, God; nor is one earlier and the other later. There is no division of will or separation in power; there is none of the qualities of divisible things. If I have to speak concisely, the divinity is undivided in beings divided; there is one mingling of light, as there would be in three suns joined to each other. When we look to the divinity, or to the First Cause, or to the monarchy, that which we conceive is one; however, when we look to those in whom there is divinity, and who are, timelessly and with equal glory, from the First Cause, there are three whom we worship. (Nicene Faith, II:364)
I do not read patristic Greek, but my guess is that 31.14 is one of those ambiguous passages the translation of which depends on how one interprets the totality of the author’s writings. Here is Behr’s interpretation:
Divinity is not an abstract category of which the Father, Son, and Spirit are parallel members or representatives, as, for example, in our own case, where there is a single humanity yet a plurality of human beings. Rather, for Gregory, the being of the Father is what divinity is and, as such, is also what the Son and the Spirit are, for they are of his being. This being so, we can, as long as we are clear about what we are enumerating, still use numbers. If we are considering “divinity,” or, as this is the being of the Father, if we contemplate the First Cause and his monarchy, we only see one, but looking at those in whom we find this divinity—those who, because derived from the First Cause, share in the monarchy, the single rule of the one God (cf. Or. 29.2)—we contemplate three. Or, as he puts it in another oration, “When I speak of ‘God,’ you must be illumined at once by one flash of light and by three” [Or 39.11]. (II:364-365)
Note Behr’s suggestion that the Son and Spirit, precisely by their origination from the Father and their possession of his essence, have come to share in the Father’s monarchy, i.e., in his sovereign rule over creation. “Monarchy” might, in other words, have multiple meanings for Gregory, depending on context and rhetorical need. Given Gregory’s flexibility with words and concepts when speaking of the divine mystery, this seems quite likely. With regard to the trinitarian identities, the Father alone is monarch, i.e., primal cause and originator; but with regard to the relationship of the triune God to his creation, the Son and Spirit share in the Father’s authority and rule, just as they share in his divinity.
Now compare Beeley’s translation of 31.14:
We have one God because there is a single Divinity and the things that issue from one [cause] refer back to it, even if three things are believed in. For one is not more and another less God; nor is one before and another after; nor are they divided in will or parted in power; nor are there any of the properties of divisible things, even if it is possible to perceive them. But, if we have to put it succinctly, the Divinity is undivided among things that are divided, as if among three suns that are related to one another there were a single co-mingling of their light. So when we look at the Divinity and the First Cause and the monarchy, what appears to us is one thing; but when we look at the things in which the Divinity exists, and the things that exist from the First Cause timelessly and with equal glory, there are three things that are worshipped. (“Divine Causality,” 210)
Beeley concedes that at first glance the first sentence might be construed as saying that the three divine persons derive from a single source, namely, the divine essence. But he deems this an implausible reading and submits that the passage must be interpreted through Oration 20: “There is one God because the Son and the Spirit are referred back to a single cause” (20.7). In light of Gregory’s discussion of the divine monarchy in Oration 20 and elsewhere, he should and must be interpreted in 31.14 as “referring not to the Divinity, but to the Father, as the cause of the Trinity, which is the point on which he ends (the First Cause and the monarchy)” (“Divine Causality,” 211). I concur.
For they are a single entity not in individual reality but in divinity, a unity worshipped in Trinity and a Trinity summed up into unity, venerable as one whole, as one whole royal, sharing the same throne, sharing the same glory, above space, above time, uncreated, invisible, impalpable, uncircumscribed, its internal ordering known only to itself, but for us equally the object of reverence and adoration, and alone taking possession of the Holy of Holies and excluding all of creation, part by the first veil, and part by the second. The first veil separates the heavenly and angelic realms from the Godhead, and the second, our world from that of the heavens. (Or 6.22)