The Fifth Theological Oration: Scripture and the “unbiblical” God

“But what do you say about the Holy Spirit?” the opponents of St Gregory Nazianzen ask. “Where did you get this strange, unscriptural ‘God’ you are bringing in?” (31.1). Thus begins the Theologian’s great oration on the Holy Spirit. Gregory stands accused of preaching an unbiblical view of the third person of the Holy Trinity. It quickly becomes clear that Gregory is no longer principally addressing the sophistical Eunomians, though they are certainly not forgotten. His opponents also include a second group, the Pneumatomachoi (“Spirit-fighters”)—believers who affirm the divinity and consubstantiality of the Son, yet who find it difficult to affirm equally the divinity and consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit. What is their difficulty? Holy Scripture! They do not find the divinity of the Spirit explicitly asserted in the Bible. We can imagine the objections posed to the great theologian: “Quote me chapter and verse. Show me where Jesus and the Apostles unambiguously state that the Spirit is God. Provide your proof texts. Demonstrate to us that you are not innovating.”

One would expect St Gregory to respond to this accusation with a lengthy presentation and analysis of Holy Scripture, as St Basil of Caesarea did in his tract On the Holy Spirit. But he chooses a different path. Why? One possibility is that though Gregory’s homilies are saturated with the language and imagery of Scripture, he tends to avoid doing close textual exegesis within them. Unlike, say, St John Chrysostom, Nazianzen rarely quotes a verse of Scripture and then tells his audience what he thinks it means, though he’s willing to do so if his opponents are grossly misreading Scripture (see Oration 30, for example). He is not an expository preacher. As Daniel Opperwall observes, Gregory prefers “broad readings of Scripture”: his theological conclusions are grounded “on the bible considered as a complete and unified whole” (The Holy Spirit in the Life and Writings of Gregory of Nazianzus, p. 10). The fundamental truths of the Christian faith do not hinge on the interpretation of one or two biblical verses. Gregory has read deeply in the Scriptures; his theology is biblical through and through; yet he is no biblicist.

But how can Gregory avoid exegesis of specific texts if his opponents are accusing him of distorting the biblical witness about the Spirit? He can’t … unless his belief in the divinity of the Holy Spirit does not rest on Scripture alone. This is not to say that the Word of God does not testify to the Spirit’s divinity—Gregory is convinced that it does—but it only does so if it is read properly, only if it is read according to the Spirit rather than according to the letter. Gregory charges his opponents of being imprisoned in the literal exegesis of the Scripture, of failing to penetrate the letter to their divinely intended spiritual meaning: “Yes, some people, very eager to defend the letter, are angry with us for introducing a God, the Holy Spirit, who is a stranger and an intruder. They must understand that ‘they are afraid where no fear is.’ They must recognize clearly that their love for the letter is a cloak for irreligion” (31.3). It may well be the case that the Bible does not explicitly state that the Spirit is God; but the truth of the Spirit’s divinity, Gregory assures us, has already been confirmed by those who, illumined by the Spirit, have seen “inside the written text to its inner meaning” (31.21). He is no doubt thinking at this point of Basil, Amphilocius of Iconium, Athanasius, and perhaps Gregory Thaumaturgus. Gregory’s dichotomy between letter and spirit is deeply informed by the hermeneutics of Origen (see Book IV of De Principiis). The Scriptures have been inspired by the Spirit and are to be read and contemplated within the Spirit-filled community of the Church. To stop at the grammatical, literal meaning of the words is to fail to penetrate to their spiritual meaning and to thus miss the divine realities they intend.

We need not be concerned that the Bible does not publicly name the Spirit as God. “Some things mentioned in the Bible are not factual,” Nazianzen explains; “some factual things are not mentioned; some nonfactual things receive no mention there; some things are both factual and mentioned” (31.22). The divinity of the Spirit just happens to fall into the second category, i.e., a truth not explicitly asserted. But that it is not explicitly asserted does not mean that the Holy Spirit is not in fact God, consubstantial with the Father. Besides, if something cannot be true if it is not attested in the Bible, then what about the titles “ingenerate” and “unoriginate,” which are the cornerstone of the Neo-Arian theology? These titles are not to be found in the Bible either (31.23). The Pneumatomachoi might protest that they should not be included in the Eunomian heresy; but in Gregory’s eyes both are guilty of blasphemy in their denial of the Spirit’s divinity and hence spiritually incapable of reading Scripture rightly. “Gregory realizes,” Christopher Beeley explains, “that the Bible does not call the Spirit ‘God’ in plain terms, and he certainly believes that the doctrine of the Spirit must be based on Scripture. But in his mind the question is not whether or not one’s doctrine is biblical, but how it is so, and what exactly this involves hermeneutically, theologically, and ecclesially” (Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God, p. 165).

If the dogma of the divinity of the Holy Spirit is not grounded in the plain testimony of the Bible, then on what is it grounded? St Gregory’s ultimate answer will need to wait for another posting; but it is intimated in his insistence that if the Scriptures are interpreted according to the Spirit, then its witness becomes perspicacious:

But now you shall have a swarm of proof-texts, from which the Godhead of the Holy Spirit can be proved thoroughly scriptural at least to those not utterly dense or utterly alien to the Spirit. Look at the facts: Christ is born, the Spirit is his forerunner; Christ is baptized, the Spirit bears him witness; Christ is tempted, the Spirit leads him up; Christ performs miracles, the Spirit accompanies him; Christ ascends, the Spirit fills his place. Is there any significant function belonging to God, which the Spirit does not perform? Is there any title belonging to God, which cannot apply to him, except “ingenerate” and “begotten”? The Father and the Son, after all, continue to have their personalities; there must be no confusion with the Godhead, which brings all other things into harmonious order. I shudder to think of the wealth of titles, the mass of names, outraged by resistance to the Spirit. He is called “Spirit of God,” “Spirit of Christ,” “Mind of Christ,” “Spirit of the Lord,” and “Lord” absolutely; “Spirit of Adoption,” “of Truth,” “of Freedom” “Spirit of Wisdom,” “Understanding,” “Counsel,” “Might,” “Knowledge,” “True Religion” and of “The Fear of God.” The Spirit indeed effects all these things, filling the universe with his being, sustaining the universe. His being “fills the world,” his power is beyond the world’s capacity to contain it. It is his nature, not his given function to be good, to be righteous and to be in command. He is the subject, not the object, of hallowing, apportioning, participating, filling, sustaining; we share in him and he shares in nothing. He is our inheritance, he is glorified, counted together with Father and Son; he is a dire warning to us. The “finger of God,” he is, like God, a “fire,” which proves, I think, that he is consubstantial. The Spirit it is who created and creates anew through baptism and resurrection. The Spirit it is who knows all things, who teaches all things, who blows where, and as strongly as, he wills, who leads, speaks, sends out, separates, who is vexed and tempted. He reveals, illumines, gives life—or, rather, is absolutely Light and Life. He makes us his temple, he deifies, he makes us complete, and he initiates us in such a way that he both precedes baptism and is wanted after it. All that God actively performs, he performs. Divided in fiery tongues, he distributes graces, makes Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. He is “intelligent, manifold, clear, distinct, irresistible, unpolluted,”—or in other words, he is utterly wise, his operations are multifarious, he clarifies all things distinctly, his authority is absolute and he is free from mutability. He is “all-powerful, overseeing all and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent and pure and most subtle”—meaning, I think, angelic powers as well as prophets and Apostles. He penetrates them simultaneously, though they are distributed in various places; which shows that he is not tied down by spatial limitations. (31.29)

Holy Scripture may not specifically name the Holy Spirit “God,” yet surely, Gregory argues, we cannot withhold this title from the Spirit, once we have taken into account everything the Bible says about what the Spirit does. He cannot be a creature. He cannot do what he does if he were only a creature; he cannot give what he gives if he were only a creature. The various activities of the Spirit imply his Godhood. A faithful heart will see the reasonableness of the inference.

Does the Bible attest the divinity of the Spirit? It depends. Have you been purified? Has your soul been illuminated? Are you living in the Spirit?

(Go to “The Spirit who is God”)

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