St Gregory of Nyssa: Perichoretic Trinity


How do we know God as Holy Trinity? Through the contemplation of Holy Scripture. During the height of the fourth century trinitarian debates, neither Orthodox nor Arians thought they were expositing a metaphysical Deity apprehended by reason alone. All parties believed that their beliefs were supported by the Bible; but because they brought to the Bible different hermeneutical presuppositions, they found themselves distilling conflicting understandings of divinity. According to St Gregory of Nyssa, the Bible must be interpreted through a proper trinitarian grammar, normed by the distinction between ousia and hypostasis. When so interpreted, the confusions noted by Gregory at the beginning of To Peter on the Divine Ousia and Hypostasis will be resolved.

Khaled Anatolios proposes that St Gregory’s epistle should be seen more as a “‘how-to manual’ for trinitarian contemplation” of the Scriptures than as a treatise containing “objective ‘information’ statements about the ousia and the hypostaseis” of the Godhead (Retrieving Nicaea, p. 223). The distinctive marks of the divine hypostases are discerned by contemplation of their triadic action of God in the economy of salvation. “In Gregory’s presentation in this epistle,” explains Anatolios, “the ‘distinguishing marks’ of each of the persons are thus to be encountered through scriptural contemplation, with an implicit understanding that the order of the economic manifestation of Father, Son, and Spirit is revelatory of their immanent order” (p. 223). And here is when things get interesting. When Gregory turns to the Bible, he begins with the Holy Spirit! The Scriptures teach us that the Spirit is the One who bestows the grace and goodness we have received. From him “the whole supply of good things flows forth upon creation” (EpPet 4d). But if we ask whether the Spirit alone is the origin of grace, we learn that that the only begotten Son is working in us through the Spirit. And if we inquire even further, we discover that the ultimate cause of blessing is the unbegotten God, from whom both the Son and Spirit derive their eternal existence. The Spirit leads us to the Son, who then brings us to the Father:

Now a good way to trace out this argument seems to me as follows. We say that every good which comes upon us by God’s power is an operation of the grace “which works all things in all” (1 Cor 12:6), as the apostle says: “But all these are the work of the one and the self same Spirit who distributes to each as he wills (1 Cor 12.11). If we ask whether the supply of the good which comes to the worthy in this way takes its origin from the Holy Spirit alone, again we are guided by Scripture to believe that the author and cause of the supply of the good things which are worked in us through the Holy Spirit is “the only begotten God” (Jn 1.18), for we are taught by Holy Scripture that “through him all things came to be (Jn 1.3) and “subsist in him” (Col 1.17).

When we have been elevated to this conception, again we are led on by God-inspired guidance and taught that through this power all things are brought from non-being into being—yet not even by this power without a principal, for there is a certain power subsisting without generation and without origin which is the cause of the cause of all that exists. For the Son, through whom are all things, and with him the Holy Spirit is always conceived of inseparably, is from the Father. For it is not possible for anyone to conceive of the Son if he has not been illumined beforehand by the Spirit (cf. 2 Cor 3.18, 4.6). (EpPet 4a-4c)

Our contemplative knowledge of the Holy Trinity thus enjoys a specific order or taxis: from and in the Spirit through and with the Son to the Father. It is a knowledge, in other words, that can be acquired only within the baptismal life of the Church. It’s not just a matter of scholarly reading of the Bible. We cannot conceive of the Son, as Gregory reminds us, unless we have been illumined by the Spirit, and we cannot think of the Father unless the Son reveals him to us. John Behr elaborates:

Gregory begins his investigation of the particularizing characteristics of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with the Apostle’s statement that the Spirit works all grace in us (1 Cor 12.11). If we ask further regarding the origin of these blessings, Scripture guides us to the belief that the only-begotten God is the source and cause of the blessings worked in us by the Spirit. But having arrived at this stage, we are led further in our contemplation to recognize that there is a Power that exists ingenerately and without beginning, the cause of all things, “for the Son, by whom all things are, and with whom the Holy Spirit must always be inseparably conceived, is of the Father” (EpPet. 4). It is important to note, for its significance is easily overlooked, that the coordinating particularities of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are derived from the scriptural account of their activity. That is, what Gregory develops here, as elsewhere, might be called the “grammar” of the scriptural account of the Trinity, using the terms ousia and hypostasis to clarify how the Scripture speaks of the commonality and distinction of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

There is, therefore, a particular order to our contemplation of the Trinity: we are led by the Spirit to knowledge of the Son, who reveals to us the Father. Corresponding in reverse sequence to this epistemological order is the ontological order, for the Father alone is ingenerate and without beginning, while the Son derives from the Father, and the Spirit, who also derives from the Father, is always contemplated together with the Son. (The Nicene Faith, II:418-419)

Astute readers will immediately wonder about the eternal Son’s involvement in the eternal procession of the Spirit. If we know the Father through the Son in the Spirit, does that indicate that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son? Two sentences in particular are suggestive:

Since the Holy Spirit … and has his being dependent on the Father as cause, from whom indeed he issues, he therefore has this distinguishing sign of its individual hypostasis, that he is known after the Son and with him, and that he has his substance from the Father. (EpPet. 4d)

The Son who makes known the Spirit who issues from the Father (Jn 15.26) through himself and with himself, and who alone shines forth as the only begotten from the unbegotten light. (EpPet. 4e)

The translator of this letter, Anna Silvas, notes that “in all of Gregory’s formulations, the Spirit does not issue from the Father without an inherent relation to the Son” (Gregory of Nyssa: The Letters, p. 253, n. 140).

St Gregory then returns to the hypostasis/ousia distinction and reiterates that the individualizing properties must be confused neither with each other nor with the “commonality of substance” (EpPet. 4g). The properties that qualify the divine substance, all of which are negative in formulation—infinity, incomprehensibility, illimitedness—may be attributed to each hypostasis, as “there is no variation in the life-giving nature”; hence “the communion contemplated in them [the divine persons] is in a way continuous and inseparable” (EpPet. 4h). Gregory thus firmly rejects the Hellenistic understanding of degrees of divinity. “Between Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” he writes, “there is no interstice into which the mind might step as into a void” (EpPet. 4i). The hypostases do not differ substantively; they are distinguished only by their hypostatic attributes. And because they share in the identical ousia, we cannot separate them in our contemplation of Holy Scripture. We may thus speak of a coinherence, or perichoresis, of the hypostases in the eternal being of the Godhead:

But one who has given thought to the Father and given thought to him as he is in himself, has also embraced the Son in his understanding, and one who has received him does not portion off the Spirit from the Son. Instead, in sequence as far as order is concerned, conjoined as far as nature is concerned, he forms an image in himself of the faith that holds the three together.

Anyone who mentions only the Spirit also embraces in this confession the one of whom he is the Spirit. And since the Spirit is of Christ (Rom 8.9) and from God (1 Cor 2.12) as Paul says, then just as anyone who catches hold of one end of a chain pulls also on the other end, so one who draws the Spirit (Ps 118.131) as the prophet says, also draws through him the Son and the Father. And if anyone truly receives the Son, he will hold to him on both sides, since the Son draws with him on one side his own Father and on the other his own Spirit. For neither can he who exists eternally in the Father (cf. Jn 10.38 14.10 17.21) ever be cut off from him, nor he who works all things by the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 12.11) ever be disjoined from his own Spirit.

Likewise anyone who receives the Father, in effect receives with him both the Son and the Spirit as well, for in no way is it possible to conceive of a severance or division, such that the Son should be thought of apart from the Father or the Spirit be disjoined from the Son. Yet both the communion and the distinction apprehended in them are, beyond a certain point ineffable and inconceivable, in which neither the distinction of the hypostases ever sunders the continuity of nature, nor the commonality of substance ever dissolves the distinguishing notes. (EpPet. 4j-4m)

Contrary to the personalist construals of John Zizioulas and others, asserts Behr, Gregory does not conceive the unity of the divine persons as “a ‘communion’ or ‘community’ between the persons, as the analogy of three distinct human agents might suggest, but rather the invariability of the nature that is contemplated equally in each, the continuity of the being of the Father in the Son and the Spirit” (II:420-421). This raises the question to what extent the writings of St Gregory can be invoked to support social trinitarian theories. Behr believes that such theories find little, if no, support in the Cappadocians. Michel René Barnes agrees: “We must be very clear: Gregory uses ύπόστασις to mean an existent with real and separate existence, and he does not use the term to refer to or to name a subject of cognition or volition (“Divine Unity and the Divided Self,” Modern Theology 18 [Oct. 2002]: 482). Anatolios, however, suggests that the matter may not be quite so clear. He agrees that for Gregory there is one divine movement of will, but “this one movement is appropriated by all three hypostaseis such that each becomes the subject of the divine will, agency, and power. This might not amount to ‘modern conceptions of personhood,’ but neither does it utterly exclude some of these conceptions” (pp. 219-220).

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2 Responses to St Gregory of Nyssa: Perichoretic Trinity

  1. whitefrozen says:

    I was just reading about Moltmann and the social trinity earlier today. I d ton’t usually go to deep into trinitarian studies, but I’m starting to be more and more intrigued.


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