St Gregory the Theologian: Oration 40 (part 1)

Eclectic Orthodoxy

St Gregory the Theologian announces the theme of his homily—“baptism and the benefits that come to us from it” (Oration 40.1). He notes that he could only address this briefly the day before, as he was pressed for time. “Surfeit of speech is harmful to the ears,” he states, “as an excess of food is to the body.” He then proceeds to deliver a homily that is over twice as long as Oration 39! I wonder what counted as a surfeit of preaching in the 4th century.

St Gregory’s words are principally addressed to his catechumens and their catechists. John McGuckin suggests that the homily was probably delivered in the baptistry. Gregory wants them to understand the importance and meaning of the mystery of holy baptism and to persuade them to submit to it and enter into the fullness of the life of Christ. One has the impression…

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5 Responses to St Gregory the Theologian: Oration 40 (part 1)

  1. This is the real stuff. It supposedly is “orthodox.” But I know of no parish of any denomination in which the clergyperson uses the word sin, let alone speaks of purification. Believe me, I’ve tried a lot of them of various denominations. In every contemporary parish I have attended, the clergyperson glorifies his flock AS THEY ARE and insists that everyone God (and we also) will and must “forgive” immediately and instantly any crime–without any need of repentance or purification. (If anyone knows of any exception in or near ZIP code 33315, please share that information with me. I’ll join that parish. )

    I must say that this way of stating The Truth, although it is absent from Orthodox parishes in 2015 is found especially in first millenium Orthodox theologians. For a book I am writing I have been seriously looking at Carolingian theology in the 9th century. Especially Saint Agobard of Lyons. They universally– so far as I can find out from learned Divines who study this subject as well as the original sources (many of which are available on the web at the Munich library which has put all the volumes of the MONUMENTA GERMANIA HISTORICA on the web for download)–think of fasting, etc. as “Penance,” as self-punishment for sin. That is, if one does not punish oneself now, God will punish one after death. (Which is the beginning of the “vicarious atonement” heresy. Saint Anselm merely added the concept that, since our pain is not sufficient to satisfy God’s demand for maximum pain, Jesus has to come down and suffer pain for us.)

    I have not found a Carolingian theologian who speaks of fasting as a form of purification or as a way of gaining self-control. Or even of a way of controlling sexual lust. Though that might be one of the reasons monks fasted, no one I have found explicitly says so. Always “penance for sin” is the only reason for any reason for any self-denial. Notice, also, that they always call it Penance and rarely speak of Confession. It is self-punishment that matters–even more than recognition of one’s weaknesses. One could almost say that they though giving ourselves pain is a good idea even if we don’t know why we are punishing ourselves.

    Again, if anyone knows of a Carolingian theologian who speaks of purification rather than of penance, please let me know.


    • Dante Aligheri says:


      While you undoubtedly command more Carolingian primary sources than myself, though not unread in that area, I would suggest that purification and penance are not terribly far apart. After all, the Bible speaks of penance as being done with sackcloth and ashes to imitate or participate in the plight of the dead. Is that punishment or purification? Certainly it was considered a display of grief before God, a ritualized “martyrdom,” if you will. What is Purgatory for but reformation through punishment – that is, discipline? To be sure, punishment is an extrinsic and perhaps regrettable phrasing, but, as in Dante’s Purgatorio, the goal was educative if nothing else.

      While centuries prior to the Carolingian era, and certainly with Eastern roots, Benedict of Nursia in his Rule does speak constantly of battling against “exaltation of the self” and obtaining humility through purification: “Brethren, if we wish to attain the highest summit of humility and to arrive quickly at that heavenly glorification, which one attains through the humiliation of the present life, we must build by our upward-moving deeds a ladder…We lower ourselves through exalting ourselves, and we climb upwards through humility” (Benedict of Nursia, “The Monastic Virtues,” David Hehily, ed., Medieval Culture and Society [Waveland Press: 1993], pg. 60) The whole Rule is devoted to this progressive purification. But Benedict is the norm, a norm established precisely by the Carolingian dictate for uniformity in religious practice, beginning of Western monasticism and so the whole West practices with him in mind.

      Also, I would kindly suggest that your reading of Anselm is somewhat simplistic, to say the least. It was, most critically, not about punishment for Anselm (not a proponent of penal substitution) but about the honor and obedience to death Christ achieved in our mortal flesh (the emphasis being on Christ’s agency of honor out of his own free will and not the agency of the Father as in penal substitution) and so able to give that honor on behalf of us all and allow our participation in that process – honor being the give and take of the cosmos. Everything we do represents proper submission to God. Thus we fall into “debt” with the first “sin” (not actual but ancestral, if you like) – which is a privation, like death. I don’t usually like monetary analogies, but they do have a place in early Judaism – concepts of ransom and debt and charity being the payment of that debt stored in the treasury of heaven (Gary Anderson, Sin: A History). And, of course, the reason why Anselm felt constrained to use the language of ransom here is because he was responding to the idea that humanity was enslaved by the Devil and under his ownership – as if the Devil required a ransom. Why did Anselm believe that humanity was created? So that we might take the place of the fallen angels – that is, exalted in original glory like Adam as custodians of creation. Just like Athanasius, Anselm said God could not let this plan fail. Now, I think Athanasius (De Incarnatione) did a far better job, but even Athanasius spoke of how God simply could not heal us from death because the Image was damaged, we are intrinsically subject to Death by matter of our contingency, a path opened by Sin. Fr. Kimel wrote a series which explains this much better. Furthermore, he even states that God could not heal us because the Word, which created the universe, could not be taken back that death is the result of sin, the penalty (or “wages”) of sin. Athanasius could speak judicial language when he wanted to, as well.

      Now, I agree that parishes do not stress the purificatory life or the process of theosis in Christ, and that is unfortunate largely due a loss, not an increase, of penitential awareness and the need for confession. Partially, the loss of a more rigorous penitential regimen is to blame, perhaps. And, of course, one could cite the very old movement of penance to after confession instead of before – thus stressing purification prior to communion. But, on the other hand, when the Mass is let out, from a Catholic perspective here, and the deacon states: “Glorify the Lord by your life,” what does he mean except that life is to be led in a constantly Christ-like, divinizing manner? It might not be said enough, but it’s there.

      As someone progressing in a similar field of study, I sincerely wish your project well and would look forward to reading such a study. Another great Carolingian study is Chazelle’s on the Incarnation (“The Crucified God”), which might be of great interest you, during the Carolingian era as depicted in artwork.

      Sorry I couldn’t help further with any research, but right now I’m tied up in the period of early modern Europe and the Reformation myself.



      • Dante Aligheri says:

        When I said that parishes do not, I apologize as I did not mean categorically. I have seen theosis taught in one or another at times, and I have certainly heard it in the liturgical rubrics recently, it being the Christmas season. I have seen, once Fr. Kimel raised the interesting issue, that often we see moral exhortation rather than Gospel proclamation a lot, but that is another topic.


    • Dante Aligheri says:


      I know Meister Eckhart was writing in the early 14th century, and has indirect roots in Pseudo-Dionysius through the Thomists, but he is still a Western theologian for what it’s worth. I was reading his sermon on eternal birth (it’s from the same book as I cited before; I’m on Christmas break and just know have gotten around to reading it straight through). Anyways, he states the following, and I immediately thought of your post:

      “The whole of a life of penitence is only among a number of things such as fasting, watching, praying, kneeling, being disciplined, wearing hair shirts, lying on hard surfaces, and so on. These were all devised because of the constant opposition of the body and the flesh to the spirit. The body is too strong for the spirit and so there is always a struggle between them – an eternal conflict. The body is bold and brave, for it is at home…This earth is its fatherland…Here the spirit is alien. Its race and kin are in heaven…To assist the spirit in its distress, to weaken the flesh…penances are put upon the flesh, like a bridle, to curb it, so that the spirit may control it. This is done to bring it into subjection, but (interjection: here’s where Eckhart gets interesting) if you wish to make it a thousand times more subject, put the bridle of love on it. With love you may overcome it most quickly and load it most heavily…He who takes this sweet burden on himself gets further and comes nearer…than he would by means of any harsh ordinance ever devised by man.” (pg. 399)

      No doubt, N.T. Wright would have much of a problem with this anti-materialistic (he would call it almost ‘gnostic,’ I suspect) language, but, for better or worse, there is penitential language revolving around purification of the spirit. Eckhart might be a fairly late source, though.


  2. It was a common practice in the fourth century to delay baptism so that much more “spotless” lives could be lived. It was practiced by St. Constantine, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Ambrose. As any professional moral theologian will tell you, you are always in a perpetual state of sin (unless you are significantly changing church doctrine or something like that). It is the purpose of each of the sacraments to remit sins (well, at least the eucharist, confession, and baptism). Thus, the practice of delaying baptism was ridiculous! (Of course, all the professional moral theologians are in the Catholic Church nowadays…)

    One thing people don’t recognize is that the eucharist ain’t for “holy people”. As one subdeacon (now a deacon) I know once stated, the English translation of the Byzantine liturgy which reads “holy gifts to holy people!” is actually a liturgical guffaw. The actual translation is “holy to the holy”. And before receiving the eucharist, Byzantines pray that the eucharist will be for healing of both soul and body and will remit sins. In the 1928 BCP, it is said of the eucharist that we “may obtain remission of our sins” through consuming it.


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