The Fifth Theological Oration: The Spirit Teaches his Divinity

“Were the Spirit not to be worshipped, how could he deify me through baptism?” asks St Gregory the Theologian. “If he is to be worshipped, why not adored? And if to be adored, how can he fail to be God? One links with the other, a truly golden chain of salvation. From the Spirit comes our rebirth, from rebirth comes a new creating, from new creating a recognition of the worth of him who effected it” (31.28).

That the Scriptures do not unequivocally name the Spirit “God” is not a matter of concern for Gregory. He certainly believes, as we have seen, that the Scriptures provide ample evidence by which we might infer the Spirit’s divinity; but ultimately Gregory’s faith in the Spirit is grounded not on the biblical witness but on the saving reality of the Spirit who was poured out upon the Church at Pentecost. The indwelling Spirit is all the proof that the Church needs. The Holy Ghost himself teaches his divinity (see Daniel Opperwall, The Holy Spirit in the Life and Writings of Gregory of Nazianzus, pp. 158−163).

In his Pentecost sermon, delivered only two months earlier, St Gregory identified the three modes of the Spirit’s presence in the disciples of Jesus, each mode distinguished by degree of immanence and spiritual intensity (41.11). The third mode is accomplished at Pentecost, when the Spirit comes upon the Church, not only as energy and power, but “in essence.” God is now present in his creation in the most unimaginably intimate way: in the person of the Holy Spirit, the Creator indwells the Church and the hearts of the baptized.

In Oration 31 Gregory identifies two crucial, and interwoven, manifestations of the Spirit’s presence in the Church—theosis and worship. Having known and experienced a kind of life that only God can give, the Church finds herself praising and glorifying the Spirit as God.

At the heart of the Gregorian doctrine of the Holy Trinity is theosis—the transformation of the human being in the communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Describing Gregory’s understanding of theosis is beyond my competence, so I will allow Christopher Beeley to do so:

Gregory understands Christian salvation in terms of the larger idea of theosis, or “divinization,” the transforming participation in the being and life of God. … In the same way that the imagery of light and illumination serves to indicate the close relationship between the nature of God and the human knowledge of God, the concept of divinization—”becoming godlike,” or “becoming divine”—likewise expresses the meaning of human existence as a participation in God’s very being. While Gregory typically speaks of divinization as the result of the saving work of Christ, theosis is, in a broader sense, a process of growth and transformation that is rooted in creation and has its fulfillment in the age to come. … The definition and goal of our existence, as established in creation, is thus to be increasingly illuminated with the divine light, to partake of God’s own being more and more, beginning in this life and continuing in the life to come. Theosis thus represents at the same time our original definition, our present nature, and our eschatological destiny.

However, in the current state of human existence, our original nature and our ultimate end have been marred. In the fall of Adam and Eve we separated ourselves from God (39.13), and interrupted the created, eschatological process of divinization. As a result, we have been cut off from the Tree of Life and banished from paradise, and we are no longer growing toward union with God (38.12). At the final judgment Christ will therefore divide those who have remained separated from God from those who are once again growing in the knowledge of God toward union with him (40.45). Within this larger scheme, salvation is the restoration of the process of theosis that God established in creation and intends to perfect in the age to come. …

Because of the fallen condition of humanity and the interruption of divinization, the determinative factor in our existence is now the incarnation of Jesus Christ, which restores our divinization. … For Gregory, the essence and goal of human life, then, is to become divine as a result of Christ’s having become human. …

The divinizing work of the Holy Spirit is both similar to and different from that of Christ. Whereas Jesus’ divinization of his own humanity and his defeat of sin and death is the principle of the divinization of others, the presence and work of the Holy Spirit through faith, baptism, and ongoing spiritual growth is the actual realization of Christ’s divinization in the Church. … The work of the Spirit, then, is to bring Christians into participation in Christ, to make Christ’s divinization real in them, and so to convey the knowledge of God in Christ. For it is by the Spirit alone that the Father is known and the Son glorified. (Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God, pp. 116-117, 119-120, 177-178)

Gregory is convinced that our deification in Christ is only possible if the Spirit is divine. How can the Spirit unite us to the uncreated existence of God if he is not himself God? Can a creature save us? Can a creature give us eternal life? Can a creature join us to the Father and the Son? Only the Deity himself can carry creatures over the chasm between uncreated and created and bestow upon them a mode of existence that they do not naturally possess. And once we understand that the Holy Spirit must be, and is, God, then we will worship and adore him as God.

Nazianzen appears to take for granted the practice that Christians do in fact worship and adore the Holy Ghost. I do not know what liturgical practices he in fact has in mind. In Caesarea St Basil had introduced the doxology “Glory be to the Father with the Son with the Holy Spirit” in order to make clear the fundamental equality of the three divine persons. Perhaps Gregory had done the same at the Church of the Anastasia. Or perhaps he and his congregation still sang the older doxology “Glory be to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.” But even if the older doxology was in force, the Spirit is still being glorified and worshipped, suggests Gregory:

It is the Spirit in whom we worship and through whom we pray. “God,” it says, “is Spirit, and they who worship him must worship him in Spirit and in Truth” [Jn 4:24]. And again: “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” [Rom 8:26]. And again: “I will pray with the Spirit but I will pray with the mind also” [1 Cor 14:15]—meaning, in mind and spirit. Worshipping, then, and praying in the Spirit seem to me to be simply the Spirit presenting prayer and worship to himself. Would any inspired, any really knowledgeable man, disapprove of the idea that the worship of one is the worship of all three, in virtue of the equal rank and equal deity inherent in all three? (31.12)

Gregory here offers an interesting, and curious, argument. I’m sure he did not overlook the obvious fact that these three biblical verses do not explicitly authorize prayer to the Holy Spirit. Each speaks only of prayer in the Spirit. How then could he think that he was actually proving that the Scripture authorizes prayer to, and thus worship of, the Holy Spirit? This is where things get interesting. Because when we pray in the Spirit and by the Spirit, Nazianzen argues, we are actually, at least implicitly, praying to the Spirit. Now this is true if the catholic doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the perichoretic union of the three divine persons is true; but that, of course, is precisely what is being debated. Gregory’s opponents could thus easily rebut his argument by pointing out that Nazianzen has committed the fallacy of petitio principii, begging the question. As a student of Aristotle, Gregory would have known this, yet he cites these three biblical verses regardless. How could he think he could get away with it? Opperwall points out the ad hominem dig of the last sentence in the quoted passage: “Would any inspired, any really knowledgeable man …” A godly person, a person who is filled with the Holy Spirit, says the Theologian, will in fact recognize that these three biblical texts attest the divinity of the Spirit and support the practice of praying to the Spirit. Hence if a person does not see this truth, he thereby proves that he is not on the journey of theosis. “What is at issue,” Opperwall writes, “is not the language of scripture, but the character of its interpreters” (p. 149). Is Gregory cheating? No doubt the Eunomians and Pneumatomachoi thought so, and if this were just a debate in which the participants were being judged by the logical force of their arguments, they would be right. Yet they would also still be wrong. Ultimately the truth of the Holy Trinity can only be seen by those who indwell the Trinity, by those who live and pray in the Holy Spirit. The trinitarian mystery of God cannot be proven by syllogistic reasoning; it can only be known by faith. The Spirit teaches the divinity of the Spirit, but this teaching is only received as truth by those who are in the Spirit. As the psalmist sings, “In your light we see light” (Ps 36:9).

The confession of the Holy Trinity can never be a mere acknowledgment of an objective reality external to ourselves. Even the demons believe and tremble. To confess God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit presupposes our union with the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. The gift of God himself is the means by which we may know and confess him. As Beeley writes, “The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is thus the epistemic principle of the knowledge of God in Christ” (p. 179). We are personally and transformatively implicated in the revelation of the Spirit:

Unlike the doctrine of the Son, in which Christ’s identity is the basis of his saving work and the central meaning of the Gospel message, the Spirit’s identity and saving work are not so purely objective and external to the believer. The Spirit is distinguished chiefly by the fact that it is known here and now in the life of the Church. Although the Spirit always remains primarily the divine Other and an “object” of belief like the Son, because it is God and thus infinitely superior to all created things, nevertheless it is in a sense perceived subjectively—we might say experientially or existentially—in the Christian’s own life and in the corporate life of the Church. While it is possible to understand the story of Christ’s incarnation and passion without that understanding having any real claim on one’s life (the demons’ knowledge of Jesus in the synoptic gospels comes to mind), the economy of the Spirit does not admit to the same sort of detachment: to confess the divinity of the Spirit—and at the same time to confess Jesus as Lord—is to acknowledge the ruling presence of God in one’s own life, because this is precisely “where” the Spirit exists for the theologian. This experiential mode of knowing reflects the way in which the presence and work of the Spirit serve to activate the Gospel narrative in one’s life and, in a sense, transposes the external narrative of God’s creating, redeeming, and perfecting work into an internal narrative of God’s work in oneself and in the contemporary Christian community. Through the Holy Spirit the story of Christ becomes the story of God’s revealing himself in one’s own new life, just as he revealed himself in the human life of Jesus—though of course Gregory distinguishes between the Son’s divinization by nature and our divinization by the divine gift of the Spirit. The confession of the Spirit’s divinity … is thus the result of the Spirit’s direct and immediate work in the life of the Church. Despite the common view of the dogmatic textbooks, the Nicene homoousion of the Spirit is the conclusion, not the premise, of Gregory’s Pneumatology. (Beeley, pp. 178-179)

A truly golden chain of salvation–to know the Spirit as God is to abide in the eternal communion of the Holy Trinity, and to abide in the Holy Trinity is to confess the Spirit as God, one in essence with the Father.

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3 Responses to The Fifth Theological Oration: The Spirit Teaches his Divinity

  1. Jonathan Prejean says:

    Just wanted to tell you that I have been following this series with great interest. While I am sure you have many loyal and silent readers, I thought you might like to hear it.

    On a more personal note, I have to admit to being grieved by our current ecclesial separation, but work like this gives me hope that maybe one day it won’t have to exist. I am working on a book, (inspired in good part on your excellent writing over the years) that may do something to move along the dialogue and to close the distance between East and West. The hope may be a vain one, but with God’s grace, the work might not be.



  2. Pingback: A Year of Blogging in Review « Letters from Nottingham

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