St Gregory of Nyssa and the Power of God

cf83ceaccf81cf89cf83ceb700671_zps54cb305cFeeling ill-equipped to answer the dilemma posed by his anti-Nicene opponents, Bishop Ablabius reaches out to the older Bishop of Nyssa and invites him to craft a response. St Gregory formulates the dilemma in these words: “Either we must say there are three gods, which is blasphemy; or else we must deny divinity to the Son and the Holy Spirit, which is irreligious and absurd” (An Answer to Ablabius in Christology of the Later Fathers, p. 256). After reading the series on his Epistle to Peter, we might expect Gregory to iterate the hypostasis/ousia distinction: there cannot be three gods because each divine person equally possesses the divine substance. No problemo. Next dilemma, please. But Gregory does not find the distinction sufficient. More needs to be said if the catholic Church hopes to demonstrate why she does not preach tritheism. And it is here that the “Father of Fathers” (the title given to him by the 7th Ecumenical Council) makes one of his most provocative contributions to trinitarian reflection: theotes (Godhead, divinity, deity) does not refer to the divine essence but to “the varied operations of the transcendent power” (p. 260).

Earlier I discussed how Basil and Gregory distinguish between God’s unknowable essence and his knowable essential attributes, the latter being intrinsic to, coextensive with, and expressive of the former. Andrew Radde-Gallwitz describes the propria as “unique identifying properties that are inseparably linked to the divine nature, but distinct in some sense” (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity, p. 184). Gregory typically refers to the propria as the “goods.” They include light, wisdom, life, truth, justice, goodness, incorruptibility—and power.

The proprium of power exercises a central role in Gregory’s lengthy refutation of Eunomius. According to Michel René Barnes “divine power” (θεία δύναμις) is the Nyssan’s preferred title for God (The Power of God, p. 237).  Power may be understood as a being’s causal faculty, the “capacity to act that is distinctive to a specific existent and that manifests the nature of that existent” (p. 305). Patristic theologians found it particularly suitable for speaking of God and especially for speaking of God as Trinity:

First of all, God acted: God had, to put it in the jargon, an affective capacity. God acted in history upon individuals and nations. Perhaps most importantly, God acted as the maker of the world, of the cosmos. If one understood God as one who acts, then the term power was quite appropriate. … For Christians there is a further intensely fundamental act on God’s part: His production or generation of a Son, a Word, a Wisdom, a Power—whatever title one picks to name this product and the associated relationship of origin and continuity. In the patristic era, any trinitarian theology is necessarily a theology of God’s productivity. (p. 10)

In contrast to Eunomius, who exhaustively identified the divine essence as unbegottenness and thus insisted, as Barnes puts it, “that God’s productive capacity is not an essential attribute, property, or quality but exists only as an act of the will” (pp. 190-191), Gregory asserts that God is generative in his inner being. The notion of divine power thus becomes crucial for Gregory in a way that it cannot be for Eunomius:

For Gregory, the transcendence of God includes the capacity to produce; indeed, Gregory’s conception of this capacity as a δύναμις means not only that this capacity exists as a natural capacity in God, but because this capacity is the δύναμις of the divine nature, God’s kind of existence is the kind that (re)produces. The distinction among Persons means that the inherent productivity of the divine nature has two different expressions of appropriations. The first Person is productive (that is, is God) by generating the Second; the second Person is productive (that is, is God) by creating. Yet Gregory’s fundamental insight, and his argument against Eunomius, remains clear: the divine nature, insofar as it is the divine nature, is productive. The unity between the divine δύναμις and divine φύσις [nature] is such that Gregory is led to speak of the transcendent δύναμις more than the transcendent φύσις, with the result that the title “divine δύναμις” replaces “divine φύσις” in Gregory’s writings. (pp. 223-224)

Given the incomprehensibility of the divine essence (ousia), or nature (physis), the divine power becomes for Gregory the primary attribute of the Creator. It is closest to the essence within the causal chain. The chain concludes with the divine works of the divine activity; the divine activity flows from the divine power; the divine power inheres in the divine essence (ἔργα-ἐνέργεια-δύναμις-οὐσία); but of the essence we cannot speak. In this sequence, therefore, δύναμις is as far back as Gregory can meaningfully expound, for the power of God manifests the unknowable essence of God. “It is important to remember,” states Barnes, “that in this causal sequence the further back in the sequence, the greater correspondence between the causality and the nature” (p. 237).


Dunamis does not exist apart from a nature; nature does not exist without its power. Or as Khaled Anatolios expresses it: “For divine ‘power’ (dynamis) means the manifestation in act of the divine nature as such” (Retrieving Nicaea, p. 178). Where we encounter the power of God, there we encounter the ineffable essence. If then the Son and Spirit exhibit the power of God, as Scripture teaches us, we rightly infer their equal divinity; for Gregory disallows all degrees of divinity within uncreated Being.

Power/essence is the primary coupling in Gregory’s writings; but in two of his short treatises, Answer to Ablabius and On the Holy Trinity, he substitutes energeia for dunamis, thus giving us an operations/essence pairing.  If the divine essence were accessible to us, says Gregory, we would have no problem determining the divinity of the Son or Spirit; but since it is not, we must instead contemplate the divine operations as revealed in Holy Scripture and reason to the Godhead:

But since it [the divine nature] is exalted above the understanding of the questioners, and we have to argue from some particular evidence about those things which evade our knowledge, it is absolutely necessary for us to be guided to the investigation of the Divine nature by its operations. If, then, we see that the operations which are wrought by the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit differ one from the other, we shall conjecture from the different character of the operations that the natures which operate are also different. For it cannot be that things which differ in their very nature should agree in the form of their operation: fire does not chill, nor ice give warmth, but their operations are distinguished together with the difference between their natures. If, on the other hand, we understand that the operation of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one, differing or varying in nothing, the oneness of their nature must needs be inferred from the identity of their operation. (On the Holy Trinity)

When from our reading of Scripture we see that the Father, Son, and Spirit engage in actions that are properly characterized as divine, we may deduce their equal communion in the one divine nature.

It is important, argues Barnes, that the energeia passages in Gregory be interpreted in light of the dunamis/physis pairing: “Gregory uses ἐνέργεια to describe the common act that the Trinity do, but both the sense of the terms themselves (activity—power) and a careful reading of Gregory’s argument lead us to understand that in the logic of his trinitarian theology, activity presupposes power” (p. 302). Energeia is always the activity of dunamis. Hence even in the few writings where Gregory emphasizes the divine operations, with minimal attention to the divine power, the dunamis/physis dialectic should be assumed as operative: the Father, Son, and Spirit are one because each possesses the one θεία δύναμις. Between the divine operations and the divine essence, there is the divine power: energeiadunamisphysis. “Power and nature are, on the one hand, virtually synonymous,” explains Lewis Ayres, “and on the other hand, it is the power that is the cause of actions ad extra” (“On Not Three People,” p. 473, n. 35).

In the words of St Gregory: “While we confess three Persons, we say that there is one goodness, and one power, and one Godhead” (On the Holy Trinity).

(Go to “The Infinity of God”)

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