The Fifth Theological Oration: The Progressive Revelation of the Spirit

If the Holy Spirit is God, why is this truth not explicitly taught in the inspired Scriptures of the Church? If the Holy Spirit is God, why did it take over 350 years for the Church to dogmatically confess it? These two questions pose the greatest problems for the position of St Gregory the Theologian over against both the Neo-Arians and the Pneumatomachians. In response Gregory advances a theory of progressive revelation akin to the position of Origen, with which he was no doubt familiar. In his essay “Knowing God in the Theological Orations of Gregory of Nazianzus,” Joseph Trigg briefly outlines the position of Origen. Origen asserts three stages in the macroscopic oikonomia of God:

Stage One, in shadows and riddles, is the Old Testament. Stage Two, when Jesus’ coming reveals the reality toward which those shadows and riddles point, is the New Testament. This makes the Old Testament accessible as gospel. The Gospel of John, unlike the other three gospels, reveals Jesus’ divinity “straightforwardly.” It thus approaches as closely as any sensible work can to a fundamentally spiritual reality by incarnating the Logos in human language. Nonetheless, a full apprehension of the Gospel requires stage three, the eschatological “eternal gospel” of Rev 14:6. This is fully apparent only when we see God “face to face” (1 Cor 13:12). Just as a select few at stage 1, Moses and the prophets, had access to the otherwise hidden coming of Jesus, so a select few at stage 2, the spiritual men, among whom Origen implicitly counts himself, have a measure of access to the eternal gospel. Thus, short of the final consummation, the church’s understanding of the gospel remains provisional and the inspired interpreter can obtain genuinely new insights. The spiritual person (the equivalent of Gregory’s theologian) participates in the divine oikonomia and furthers it in the same way that the angels do. (God in Early Christian Thought, ed. McGowan, Daley, and Gaden, pp. 88-89)

The Old Testament foreshadows the New Testament, but even in the New Testament not all truths are manifestly and clearly stated. Even the Gospel of John is “a shadow of deeper realities” (p. 89). Origen apparently believed that the Apostles had been given a full understanding of God’s revelation in Christ, but they only spoke of what believers absolutely needed to know at that specific time, “while ‘reserving’ the reason for their assertions to be ‘sought’ by future believers who would have the charisms of ‘speech, wisdom and knowledge'” (p. 89). Thus, for example, in Origen’s formulation of the Rule of Faith, the doctrines of the Father and Son are set forth in some measure of detail and substance, but the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is merely stated. This may mean, Trigg suggests, that Origen considered the Spirit to be “one of those doctrines where the Apostles deliberately left more for investigation” (p. 89).

Why would God withhold from mankind a full and detailed revelation of the economy of salvation? For pedagogical reasons. Humanity is not prepared to receive everything all at once. Excessive information can be burdensome and confusing. In his mercy and love God reveals divine truths bit by bit, “one insight building upon another. Thus it is gradual and limited, not by some secretiveness of God’s part, but by human limitations, limitations that, nonetheless, can be overcome to some extent through a gradual process of assimilation to the divine” (p. 86). It is the task of the spiritual teacher to discern when his pupils are ready to be led into deeper understanding of the divine mysteries.

St Gregory responds to the charge of introducing an “unscriptural God” with his own version of the progressivity of God’s covenants. “There have been,” he explains, “two remarkable transformations of the human way of life in the course of the world’s history” (31.25). Each was an earthquake in human history. The first was the transition from idols to Law—the first covenant. The second was the transition from Law to Gospel—the second covenant. And within the second covenant there is also the intimation of a third change, “from the present state of things to what lies unmoved, unshaken, beyond” (31.25). Each of these epochs is marked by gentleness, graduality, and pedagogical intent. God does not compel or force; he persuades and coaxes. Our Creator respects the freedom he has given us. He does not overcome our will like a cruel tyrant.

It belongs to despotic power to use force; it is a mark of God’s reasonableness that the issue should be ours. God thought it wrong to do men good against their will but right to benefit those with a mind to it. For this reason, he acts like a schoolmaster or doctor, taking away some ancestral customs, allowing others. He yields on some trifles which make for happiness, just as physicians do with the sick to get the medicine taken along with the sweeter ingredients artfully blended in. (31.25)

When God established the Law and abolished idols, he permitted sacrifices to continue for a time. When he established the gospel, he abolished the sacrifices but permitted circumcision to continue for a time. But eventually, as the Church grew in its understanding of the gospel, God led the Church to abandon the concession of circumcision, as evidenced in the behavior and teaching of the Apostle Paul. God’s self-disclosure as Holy Trinity is marked by a gracious restraint and historical progressivity, correlated with the two covenants:

The old covenant made clear proclamation of the Father, a less definite one of the Son. The new covenant made the Son manifest and give us a glimpse of the Spirit’s Godhead. At the present time, the Spirit resides amongst us, giving us a clearer manifestation of himself than before. It was dangerous for the Son to be preached openly when the Godhead of the Father was still unacknowledged. It was dangerous, too, for the Holy Spirit to be made (and here I use a rather rash expression) an extra burden, when the Son had not been received. It could mean men jeopardizing what did lie within their powers, as happens to those encumbered with a diet too strong for them or who gaze at sunlight with eyes as yet too feeble for it. No, God meant it to be by piecemeal additions, “ascents” as David called them, by progress and advance from glory to glory, that the light of the Trinity should shine upon more illustrious souls. This was, I believe, the motive for the Spirit’s making his home in the disciples in gradual stages proportionate to their capacity to receive him–at the outset of the gospel when he performs miracles, after the Passion when he is breathed into the disciples, after the Ascension when he appears in fiery tongues. He was gradually revealed by Jesus also, as you too can substantiate by a more careful reading. “I will ask the Father,” he says, “and he will send you another Comforter, the Spirit of Truth”–intending that the Spirit should not appear to be a rival God and spokesman of another power. … The Savior had certain truths which he said could not at that time be borne by the disciples, filled through they had been with a host of teachings. These truths … were therefore concealed. He also said that we should be taught “all things” by the Holy Spirit, when he made his dwelling in us. One of these truths I take to be the Godhead of the Spirit, which becomes clear at a later stage, when the knowledge is timely and capable of being taken in, when after our Savior’s return to heaven, it is, because of that miracle, no longer an object of disbelief. What greater truth could the Son promise or the Spirit teach than this one? If any promise or teaching ought to be deemed great, this ought. (31.26-27)

In the Old Testament God reveals himself as Father. I am tempted to raise the quibble that God really cannot have been revealed as Father until the Son had become incarnate; but I grant Gregory’s point. The LORD is certainly appropriately identified as the Father of Israel. The eternal Son is only intimated in the first covenant, because it would have been dangerous to have revealed himself fully before the truth of monotheism was firmly established in the consciousness of Israel. The People of God first had to move beyond all forms of polytheism before she was prepared to receive the truth of the Son and his eternal generation by the Father. Similarly, in the New Testament, when the divine Son had been finally manifested in Jesus Christ, it was necessary to withhold the additional revelation of the Spirit’s divinity until the divinity of the Son had been fully embraced and assimilated by the Church. At first it was sufficient that believers should simply experience the regeneration and deification of the Pentecostal gift; but eventually it became necessary that the full truth of the Spirit should be declared and taught. For this purpose God raises up genuine theologians, men like Gregory who have been purified and illumined by the Spirit and led up the mountain of contemplation. Now is the time, the Theologian announces, for the fearless and uncompromising proclamation of the deity of the Holy Spirit.

Gregory responds to the charge of fabricating new revelation by insisting that the Church’s knowledge of the divinity of the Son is grounded upon the Spirit himself, who now inhabits and indwells the Church. This is not a post-apostolic revelation. The Church, rather, has grown in her understanding of what she has received in Pascha and Pentecost. John Behr describes this as an ascent of maturity (Nicene Faith, II:369). Before the Church could begin to formulate the divinity of the Spirit, she first had to assimilate and clarify the apostolic revelation of Jesus Christ as the eternal Son; but now that the Church has finally achieved dogmatic understanding of the consubstantiality of the Son, she is ready to reach a similar understanding of the Holy Spirit, based ultimately not on proof-texts from Scripture but on her experience of the Spirit.

May we speak here of a development of doctrine? Trigg is willing to invoke this language: “Long before Schleiermacher or Newman, Gregory argues for progressive change, if not organic development in the 19th century sense, in the church’s doctrine. … For Gregory, … as for Origen, the church’s understanding of God is not something perfect and static, given for all time, but a dynamic process by no means complete” (pp. 103-104). Behr, on the other hand, disagrees. Gregory is not advancing a theory of the development of doctrine. No new dogmatic facts are being introduced. It is, rather, a matter of increasing comprehension of the revelation once delivered to the saints. But I have to wonder whether Behr (and other Orthodox exegetes) doth protest too much. Newman too would have agreed that the apostolic revelation is final and definitive (see Daniel J. Lattier, “The Orthodox Rejection of Doctrinal Development,” Pro Ecclesia XX [2011]: 389-410). I find it difficult to make sense of the Orthodox Faith without an understanding of the development of doctrine. And I find it difficult to make sense of St Gregory’s confession of the deity of the Holy Spirit without some such understanding.

“Soul, why delay?” St Gregory exclaims. “Sing also the Spirit’s glory, and don’t separate in speech what the nature did not leave out. Let us quake before the great Spirit, who is my God, who’s made me know God, who is God there above, and who forms God here” (On the Spirit 1.3).

(Go to “The Spirit Teaches his Divinity”)

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