St Gregory the Theologian and the One God (part 3)

Christ the Ancient of Days“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)

(Return to first article)

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18 Responses to St Gregory the Theologian and the One God (part 3)

  1. It seems to me that much of the apparent disparity between Eastern and Western trinitarian theology would disappear if we attended more to two points both sides could accept, consistently with Nicene-Chalcedonian orthodoxy..

    First, being-three-persons is absolutely necessary to the divine essence, but being-creator is only hypothetically necessary to the divine essence. Both properties are eternal and unalterable, and thus of the divine essence, but the latter is the result of a divine decision that could have been otherwise, given what else belongs to the divine essence; while the former is not, but rather is itself naturally necessitated by what else belongs to the divine essence. So the Father is indeed Monarch ad intra and the Godhead monarch ad extra. But the Father is not Monarch ad a sense that would be incompatible with saying that the divine essence is too. That’s because what accounts for the Father’s being Monarch ad intra is, precisely, the divine essence that necessitates his begetting and spirating the other two person respectively.

    Of course we must affirm that begetting and spirating are activities personal to the Father. But if the above is correct, we can affirm that without having to deny that such activities are absolutely necessary within the divine essence, and thus just as much characteristic of the divine essence as anything else.

    Second and accordingly, we should say that the Father originates each of the other two persons only in relation to the other, even as the other two stand in different relationships to him and to each other. He begets and spirates both persons eternally and necessarily; but he spirates the Holy Spirit only as Father of the Son, and thus does so on account of and for the sake of the Son. He also begets the Son only as the Monarch who also breathes forth the Holy Spirit, for he begets the Son only in relation to the Spirit, inasmuch as the Son is he for the sake of whom the Father necessarily breathes forth the Spirit.

    Of course, the implications of the above account for the person/nature distinction in God will put off those for whom only Cappadocian trinitarianism is acceptable. But that would just be to freeze the development of trinitarian doctrine in the 4th century. That is neither necessary nor desirable.

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Michael, thank you very much for your comment. I always learn so much for you.

      I’d like to issue you a friendly challenge. Forget, for the moment, that you are a Roman Catholic, bound by the 2nd millenium dogmatic decisions of the Roman Magisterium. Now insert yourself into the trinitarian theology of the Cappadocians (however you want to construe it–we can talk about the details later). What are the weaknesses and failures of that theology that demand dogmatic correction?

      • Fr. Aidan, I interpret your question as one about the necessary and sufficient conditions for legitimate development of dogma. If one stipulates, as a necessary condition, that dogma be defined only as a corrective to what presents itself as church-dividing heresy, then I would agree that no dogma beyond what developed in the 4th century is necessary for upholding trinitarian orthodoxy. For there haven’t really been any new trinitarian heresies since that time.

        The further question naturally arises, however, whether the condition stipulated is in fact a necessary condition, not merely a sufficient condition (which latter all sides agree on), for defining dogma. Given how she has proceeded since the turn of the first millennium, it is evident that Rome does not think said condition to be necessary–whether we’re talking about trinitarian doctrine such as the filioque, or Marian doctrines such as the Assumption (Dormitiion) or the Immaculate Conception, or any of several others that have posed problems between West and East. From an RC standpoint, the common point of dogmatizing such beliefs is to establish, as objects of the assent of divine faith, deeper insights into the deposit of faith than previous confrontations with heresy logically necessitated. So then the question arises: Why do that, if not to correct heresy?

        The point varies with the specific subject-matter. For instance, I believe that the RC Marian dogmas have both a proximate and an ultimate point that are very important for the life of the Church. The proximate point is to supply the faithful with greater motivation for cultivating fervent devotion to the Mother of God as “the” exemplar of theosis and the most powerful interecessor on our behalf with God. Beyond its inherent value for promoting sanctity, the point of doing that, in turn, is help equip the faithful for restoring the broken unity of Christians amid what I see as the greatest intra-Christian doctrinal issue of our time: the sense in which something called “the Church” is the Body of Christ, and thus the visible embodiment of divine authority for humanity since Christ took his seat at the right hand of the Father. Christianity is sadly divided on that point, thus severely hampering evangelization in today’s fractured world. But given all that the Catholic Church has defined about her, Mary is also “Mother of the Church” (the title bestowed on her by Lumen Gentium). Thus, to the extent the faithful rally around her as their mother, they will ipso facto be rallying around the very ecclesial authority by which her special privileges have been dogmaticaly defined, thus helping to heal the wounded integrity of the one Body of Christ. And that, I believe, would be the spiritually most powerful force for evangelization in a time when that is needed in an increasingly post-Christian culture.

        As to specifically trinitarian doctrine, the West in the first millennium generally took the truth of the filioque for granted, and justified professing it as de fide by positing the need of it as an antidote to Arianism. That need, I believe, was pastoral not logical, for it obtained only in the West, not in the East. For that reason, I believe it was a pastoral error for the papacy to eventually insert the filioque clause unilaterally into what had been the ecumenical Creed. I expect that error will be reversed in due course even though, given what Catholics are generally like today, I believe it would be inopportune to do it today. But given that, from a Catholic standpoint, the dogma itself is irreformable, the question arises what its value for the Church could be.

        I think its value today consists proximately in its presenting the Trinity as a community whose unity of extra mirrors its ad intra unity of being and life. Eastern theologians see no difficulty with affirming an economic filioque; they just point out that an immanent filioque does not logically follow from that, and most believe also that affirming the latter compromises the doctrine of the monarchy of the Father. But if the second point of my initial comment is correct–and I believe it is–then the sense of the filioque which Rome has dogmatized logically follows (as does a spirituque corollary , but that is another topic). Of course that sense is more limited and less ambitious than the various explanations Catholic theologians have given of the filioque, and those are not irreformable. But if the dogma itself is true, then we are in a position to say that the economic Trinity just is the immanent Trinity. Thus in divine revelation, God holds no truth back that can be communicated to us. And that points up the ultimate point of the dogma: it highlights what theosis involves, by making clearer that the divine community of action into which we are inserted as Christian pilgrims on earth just is the divine community of being which Trinity is ad intra. That makes the central doctrine of the Trinity itself far more relevant for Christian life than it is normally taken to be.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        If the Cappadocian affirmation of the paternal monarchy is orthodox and if it offers a dogmatic answer to both Arian subordinationism and Sabellian modalism, why then the need for further dogma? I have no problem with godly speculation and theologoumena; but it’s hard to see ecumenical progress taking place when a dogmatically unnecessary theologoumena is insisted upon by one party. Do you disagree?

      • Good question, Father. Since there’s nothing heretical in Cappadocian theology, I’m not sure there’s anything in it that theology which “demands dogmatic correction.” I do think, however, that nobody in the 4th century did (or could do) everything possible in principle to illuminate the necessary middle way between tritheism and modalism. In particular, I don’t think the Cappadocians were clear about how the person/nature (or: (hypostasis/essence) distinction should be limned. I just presented a thought about how to do that. And it probably isn’t even original.

  2. Iohannes says:

    Hi Fr. Kimel,

    I remember discussing Or. 31.14 with David Waltz at Articuli Fidei. You can find the Greek text with commentary here.

    The crucial sentence reads:

    ημιν εις θεος, οτι μια θεοτης· και προς εν τα εξ αυτου την αναφοραν εχει, καν τρια πιστευηται.

    Literally it is:

    “For us (there is) one God because (there is) one godhead/divinity/divine nature; and to one thing those things (derived) from it have their reference, even though three things are believed.”

    I think you are correct about how Gregory’s audience would have understood his words. If the “one thing” from which the others derive is the essence, Gregory would seem to be at odds with Basil, who says in Hom. 24.4:

    “But when I say one essence, don’t think of two divided from one, but think of the Son subsisting from the Father as source, not of Father and Son emerging from one essence. For we don’t speak of brothers, but we confess Father and Son. And the essence is the same, since the Son is from the Father: he wasn’t made by his command, but was begotten from his nature; and he wasn’t divided off from the Father, but has shone forth perfect from him who remains perfect.” (my rough translation)


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      John, I just read through that long thread in which you participated over at Articuli Fidei. It’s a very interesting and substantive thread and actually a model of how internet discussions should happen. On the whole the thread confirms my reading of St Gregory on the monarchy of the Father.

    • Ioannes:

      For the reasons given in my comment, I believe Gregory Naz and Basil can and should be interpreted as compatible on this point.


      • Iohannes says:


        Your comment may well be correct as a supplement to Gregory’s theology. As an historical matter, I don’t see Gregory teaching what Torrance finds in the passage. I am not a patristics expert, of course, but Fr. Kimel’s reasoning seems on the mark to me. By the time we reach the Fifth Theological Oration, Gregory has already used the language of reference (“αναφοραν”) to unpack to relation of the Son and the Spirit to the Father:

        το μεν γαρ αναρχον, και αιδιον· το αιδιον δε, ου παντως αναρχον, εως αν εις αρχην αναφερηται τον πατερα. (Or. 29.3)

        “For that which is unoriginate is eternal, but that which is eternal is not necessarily unoriginate, so long as it may be referred to the Father as its origin.” (NPNF version)

        As you note, there may be a sense in which even the Father “has reference” to the essence. Nevertheless, I think it would be unusual for Gregory to express the idea that way, whereas saying that the Son and Spirit have reference to the Father was a natural way of speaking.


  3. Iohannes says:

    Sorry, I dropped a word by accident. Basil’s first sentence should end: “…from one superior essence,” as the parallel Latin version in Migne has it.

  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Thank you, John, for your comments. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to have someone comment on this blog who actually reads patristic Greek.

    Would you mind providing a full translation of the crucial sentence, in light of your correction. Better yet, would you be willing to offer a translation of the entire passage in question? Pretty please. :)

    • Iohannes says:

      Fr. Kimel,

      Thanks for this series on Gregory. My Greek is rusted over and not especially trustworthy, but I took a stab at translating the passage. What follows is woodenly literal:

      “For us there is one God because there is one divine nature; and to one thing those things from it have their reference, even though three are believed. For the one is not more, the other less God; nor the one earlier, the other later; nor are they separated in will or divided in power; nor is it possible to find even here anything that belongs to things divided; but if one must speak concisely, the divine nature is undivided in the divided beings; even as in three suns joined to each other there is one blending of the light. When therefore we look to the divine nature and the first cause and the single government, what is visible to us is one; but when we look to the things in which the divine nature is, even to the things from the first cause which timelessly and with equal glory are from it, the things worshipped are three.”

      About that last statement, Mason observes:

      “It is possible that Gr. here means to speak of the Father Himself as [from the first cause]; but if so, that [first cause] is within Himself. He is the source of His own being.”

      I think that is how Gregory should be understood if he is aspiring to complete precision. In this context, however, I am not sure we need to read so much into the phrasing, which is not always exact.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Also of interest here is the Reformed-Orthodox Agreed Statement on the Trinity. T. F. Torrance was its principal author, though I imagine he worked closely with Dragas. Here’s the money quote: “The mia arche or Monarchia is inseparable from the Trinity, the Monas from the Trias. As such the Monarchy of the Father within the Trinity is not exclusive of the Monarchy of the whole undivided Trinity in relation to the whole of creation.”

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Thank you, John. I wonder if St Gregory has elsewhere explicitly spoken of the Father as the source or cause of his own being. It’s quite possible that I may have overlooked this claim in my reading. Zizioulas, I know, interprets the monarchy in this way; otherwise, the Father would be subject to necessity.

  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have expanded the article and included Beeley’s translation of the controverted Or 31.14.

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      John, I have to believe that for whatever reasons St Gregory was less clear in his Theological Orations about the monarchy of the Father than he was in his other orations–perhaps because he knew that a portion of his audience consisted of Neo-Arians. In any case, Beeley is right: if one wants to understand correctly the Theological Orations, one needs to read the other orations. IMHO.

    • Iohannes says:

      Thank you for adding Beeley’s translation. I had come across excerpts before, but hadn’t read Oration 20 till today. I notice you have done a series on it. Paragraphs 6 and 7 go a long way toward clearing up the sense of Or. 31.14. In them Gregory uses the same reference language (“εις εν αιτιον και Υιου και Πνευματος αναφερομενων,” “if both the Son and the Spirit are referred to one cause”), and also tells us: “The Father, then, is without source: his existence is derived neither from outside nor from within himself. In turn, the Son is not without source if you understand ‘Father’ to mean causal agent, since the Father is the source of the Son as causal agent, but if you take source in the temporal sense, he too is without source because the Lord of all time does not owe his source to time.” (Vinson)

      Incidentally, is it true you live in Virginia? I went to UVa for undergrad, was away for a few years, and just moved back to Charlottesville. If you’re ever in town, Alderman Library is a great resource – the fifth floor is packed with theological works – and anyone with a Virginia driver’s license has borrowing privileges.

  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I just came across this instructive article by Peter Gilbert (actually, a chapter from his dissertation): Trinitarian Theology in St Gregory’s Poems.

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