By Robert F. Fortuin
‘… the Holy Spirit, in delivering to us the Divine mysteries, conveys its instruction on those matters which transcend language by means of what is within our capacity.’1
The focus of this essay is to draw attention to an important aspect of theology which in my opinion does not get near the attention that it should. This area of study concerns the rules for the discourse about God, the grammar of ‘theo-logic.’ These are the rules which govern predication of God, and this discipline has as its aims to inquire how such rules differ from those which concern predication of ordinary, non-divine subjects. For example, in what sense can existence be said of God (i.e. ‘God exists’)? How does divine existence differ, if it differs at all, from non-divine existence? More specifically, how can divine difference (and likeness) be accounted for in our theological grammar, and what bearing does this difference have on the signification of words? It seems to me that language appropriate to God should be of particular concern to Eastern Orthodoxy and to all Christians for whom God’s radical otherness constitutes the sine qua non of the mystical dimension of theology. Attention to the demands which theology exerts on language would seem to be more than an idle pre-occupation—words are the only tools available to the theologian. She stands or falls by the words she chooses and how they are utilized. This field of study moves beyond epistemology into an area where dogmatics, metaphysics and linguistics intersect. Setting aside for a moment the question as to the ground for theological knowledge (epistemology shall be noted later), the question I wish to raise is as follows: how can we adequately formulate a ‘theo-logos,’ words or discourse about God, given the mysterious and transcendent nature of the theological subject? This question should make the alarm bells go off, red flags should immediately be raised. The fathers of the undivided church unanimously warn that God is not an ordinary subject: God is not to be reckoned as a being within the hierarchy of beings. He is, in other words, not a proper subject at all. In the words of Pseudo-Dionysius, ‘if in seeing God one can know what one sees, then one has not seen God in himself but something intelligible, something which is inferior to him.’2 Dionysius warns us that if in naming God we think we thereby have come to a comprehension of the nature of God, i.e. what God is, we will have deluded ourselves in describing an idol. John of Damascus is no less direct, ‘God does not belong to the class of existing things: not that he has no existence but that he is above all existing things, nay even above existence itself.’3 The difficulty these theologians point to is that in offering a description of a transcendent object its very transcendence has been betrayed. Gregory of Nyssa sums up this limitation of words when used to describe divinity: ‘the infinity of God exceeds all the significance and comprehension that names can furnish.’4 Descriptions then are unable to exhaust divine transcendence; God ever exceeds what words can signify. The Cappadocian father exposes a complication for God-talk: how can discourse about God who ‘is above existence itself’ proceed when our language can only signify concepts of inferior things? The task demanded of language is to bear the ineffable mystery of the transcendent God—but this does not seem to possible. How can words signify the ‘ever-exceeding-beyond’ when the only reference available to language is the comprehension of the ‘here and now’? In this essay I intend to show how Gregory of Nyssa frames a theory of theological language grounded in God’s likeness in creation and in which he incorporates analogical predication to account for divine dissimilarity from creation. My threefold aim is to demonstrate: 1.) special grammatical rules should govern theological discourse to account for God’s transcendence, the interval of God’s infinite dissimilarity; 2.) apophaticism as a mode of discourse is inadequate for the theological task; and 3.) analogy, the language of mystery, is the only means whereby a mystical theology of God’s transcendence can be expressed.
The need for attention to theological grammar is no more evident than in Gregory of Nyssa’s Contra Eunomium. Gregory charges his Arian interlocutor bishop Eunomius with the error of using words in their normal, univocal sense to signify the divine mode of existence. Arguing against Eunomius’ claim that ‘there was a time when Christ was not,’ Gregory points out that the Son’s generation from the Father is unlike creaturely generation which denotes non-existence and succession in time.5 According to Gregory, Eunomius’ error lies in the univocal use of the term ‘generation’: he uses the creaturely mode of begetting to signify the divine mode of generation. For the Cappadocian father, the requirement for a distinctive theological grammar is due to God’s radical otherness from creation; consequently, a literal or univocal use of ‘generation’ is not be predicated of God. Divine dissimilarity, according to Nyssa, is the reason for the inadequacy of the ordinary sense and univocal signification of language in discourse about God. Failure to account for divine difference in theological grammar leads to, or is a result of, erroneous anthropophatic conceptions of divinity. Words then must be utilized in such a way to move beyond their ordinary signification: for Gregory theological grammar must go beyond mere apophatic negation (i.e. ‘the Son is not generated’) in order to establish in what sense the Son is generated. Based on an atemporal filial generation which precludes non-existence Gregory refutes the Anomoeans’ claim that the Son is unlike the Father. Gregory use of terms acknowledges the difference between the divine and creaturely mode of existence. Dissimilarity from creation is thus of utmost importance to Gregory’s theology and theological language: divine unlikeness must somehow be reflected in the discourse of God.
It should come as no surprise then to find that Nyssa’s defense of Nicene orthodoxy is built on a detailed articulation of God’s radical difference from creation. Gregory ontological Anschauung consists of an absolute division between the uncreated and created order of existence—an interval which he refers to as the ‘ultimate division of being’ or άνωτάτω διαίρεσις. This gulf is a ‘disproportion of dissimilarity’ marked by the infinite, absolute existence of God6 in contradistinction to the finite, contingent being of the created order. God’s infinite mode of existence is utterly unlike the mode of existence of the created order which is constrained by limitation, composition, and change. According to Gregory, God’s existence does not come into being7 but always simply ‘is’; there is no ‘before,’ ‘during’ and ‘after’ in God’s mode of being.8 Furthermore, unlike creation God’s existence is marked neither by a ‘here’ nor a ‘there’ as if composed of parts which extend into space. God’s illimitable mode of being thus knows neither time, place, extension, nor composition.9 According to Gregory, God is ‘the cause of his own existence’ which denotes that the άνωτάτω διαίρεσις constitutes an ontological disproportion between God and his handiwork.10 He self-exists and is therefore unlike derivative existence, for God does not depend on anything or anyone ‘outside’ Himself for His existence. God’s aseity is the possibility for creation, as only He that self-exists can freely give being to being without constraint, diminishment, or necessity. Furthermore, God is perfect, without unrealized potential, for according to Gregory, ‘nothing can be added to God.’11 This is a very quick sketch of how St Gregory construes the infinite interval of difference which distinguishes God from creation.
The pertinent point here is that the ultimate division of being poses a difficulty for theological discourse, a problem of which Gregory was quite cognizant. As Gregory explains it, ‘the created nature and the Divine essence being thus divided, and admitting no intermixture in respect of their distinguishing properties, we must by no means conceive both by means of similar terms.’12 The distinction between God and creation precludes the use of similar designations—words are emptied of signification by reason of their inability to bridge the infinite interval of difference. Because each nature has its own distinct mode of existence, it is not possible to ‘express by the same terms the created and the uncreated essence, seeing that those attributes which are predicated of the latter essence are not discoverable in the former.’13 The interval between God and creation thus forecloses all possibility of theologizing, for according to Gregory the division does not allow for ‘intermixture’ and therefore ‘similar terms’ cannot be used. Equivocation, the complete breakdown of signification, seems to rule the day for absolute unlikeness presents a complete disjunction forestalling all God-talk. However, Gregory shows how he overcomes this difficulty in the course of his argument against Eunomius:
we are taught by the divine Scriptures many names of the Only-begotten—a stone, an axe, a rock, a foundation, bread, a vine, a door, a way, a shepherd, a fountain, a tree, resurrection, a teacher, light, and many such names. But we may not piously use any of these names of the Lord, understanding it according to its immediate sense. For surely it would be a most absurd thing to think that what is incorporeal and immaterial, simple, and without figure, should be fashioned according to the apparent senses of these names… but we transfer the sense of these names to what better becomes the Divine nature, and form some other conception, and if we do designate Him thus, it is not as being any of these things, according to the definition of His nature, but as being called these things while He is conceived by means of the names employed as something else than the things themselves.14
Nyssa affirms the use of normal words, but not with the normal or what he calls the ‘immediate’ and ‘apparent’ sense of their significations. Gregory cautiously approves that discourse about God is possible provided we remain aware of and utilize the signification of words befitting God’s mode of existence. Thus it is proper according to Nyssa to predicate of Christ that ‘he is a rock,’ provided we ‘form some other conception’ and say that Christ is not a rock in the ordinary, apparent sense of a rock. Note that here (in the case of a term which does not describe a divine attribute) apophaticism is appropriate. A simple apophatic denial of the affirmation is adequate: ‘God is not a rock, an axe, a door, and so forth’ because God ‘is not as being any of these things.’ In the case of metaphors then apophaticism is appropriate; however, the inadequacy of apophaticism shall be noted below, for not all predication of God is by way of metaphor. At any rate, Gregory maintains that theological discourse must account for God’s utter dissimilarity from creation; consequently, God-talk must ‘transfer the sense’ of ordinary words to ‘what better becomes’ the uncreated nature.
The disjunction between the divine and created mode of existence raises the further question as to the nature of this ‘transfer of sense’ and the question as to the possibility of such a shift in knowledge. Gregory elsewhere in Contra Eunomium explains how he formulates a transfer of sense in theological discourse:
… the Holy Spirit, in delivering to us the Divine mysteries, conveys its instruction on those matters which transcend language by means of what is within our capacity … it portrays the Divinity in bodily terms … none of which things is apprehended to belong in its primary sense to the Divine Nature … it describes by terms well worn in human use, facts that are beyond every name, while by each of the terms employed concerning God we are led analogically to some more exalted conception. [The Holy Spirit] taking just so much from each [human concept] as may be reverently admitted into our conceptions concerning God … indicates by those conceptions concerning God which correspond to them, not admitting the corporeal senses of the words … yet does not speak in that sense which our customary knowledge enables us to understand.15
In this important pericope Nyssa points to two distinct but related aspects—he establishes the epistemological ground for theological discourse and how such epistemology determines the mode whereby this discourse is to be conducted. As to the latter, the mode of discourse, the Cappadocian father notes that by means of ordinary language ‘well worn in human use’ conceptions proper to theologia can be obtained by way of analogy, transferring from human concepts just that which is befitting the Divine nature. Analogy or αναλογια used by Gregory in this passage denotes ‘a relation by measure of proportionality’—an analogical likeness proportionate to the degree that creaturely existence reflects or participates in the existence and perfections of God. The flipside of the analogy is that insofar the created mode of existence is unlike divinity, dissimilarity precludes the use of terms in their univocal or ordinary sense. It is worth pointing out that analogical theology embeds similarity within an ever greater dissimilarity in order to account for the disjunction which divine transcendence presents. Recall how this functions in Gregory’s argument against Eunomius: the likeness of human generation to divine filial generation is affirmed (Nyssa maintains that the Son is begotten, and He is Son of the Father), whilst yet it is surpassed by infinite dissimilarity (hence divine generation is atemporal and does not denote beginning, becoming, and non-existence). Theological discourse by mode of analogy thus ever acknowledges the need for further explication to formulate the in-what-sense of its predication of God, cognizant of its state of incompletion in light of the infinite otherness of God. The grammar of analogy is thus quite slippery, but it is for that reason precisely fit for mystical theology, a theology of divine transcendence. As to the epistemological ground for theological discourse, Gregory indicates the existence of a correspondence or proportional (analogical) likeness between created and uncreated being. He grounds his epistemology in the ontological correspondence of divine likeness present in the created order; a correspondence which in turn constitutes the possibility for meaningful discourse about God. Even so, theological grammar must account for the likeness while noting the unlikeness. In Gregory’s words, ‘that which is “made in the image” of the Deity necessarily possesses a likeness to its prototype,’ and ‘the reflections of those ineffable qualities of Deity shine forth within the narrow limits of our nature.’ Even so, whilst recognizing similarity Gregory is keen to note dissimilarity for, ‘it would be no longer an “image,” if it were altogether identical with that other.’16 By means of analogy Gregory of Nyssa frames a theological language which is grounded in God’s likeness in creation and which accounts for divine dissimilarity. It is thus that he construes grammatical rules to guide theological discourse in order to ‘transfer the sense’ of names to ‘what better becomes the Divine nature.’
Moving on to the inadequacy of apophaticism as the ground for theological discourse. As noted analogical discourse of God accounts for the interval of dissimilarity whilst being grounded in an epistemology of correspondence. Apophaticism as a theology of denial, however, foregrounds dissimilarity such that it undermines the possibility of theological discourse. This shortcoming of the via negativa as a mode of discourse is evident when applied to divine attributes or perfections (i.e. goodness, being, wisdom, truth, and so forth) when predicated of God. In the case of terms not signifying a divine attribute, denial is proper: so we can state that ‘God is not a rock’ and leave it at that for God is not really a rock. But this is not the case for divine perfections; take for instance ‘goodness.’ We can affirm that ‘God is good’ without qualification (keeping in mind of course that our manner of signifying perfections always falls short, but ‘God is good’ nonetheless can be properly said of God). The statement ‘God is not good’ however cannot be properly predicated of God. The denial must be qualified to signify how, in what sense, divine goodness is dissimilar to goodness as encountered in creatures. Here the analogy of proportionality, Nyssa’s Grundregel for theological grammar, has to be applied: God is not good in the sense goodness is predicated of creatures. Creatures participate in goodness by measure of acquisition, but God does not participate in goodness for He is the good and He is goodness (recall the difference in mode of existence according to Gregory’s ultimate division of being). By this analogical rule then discourse of God acknowledges the likeness and the dislikeness of goodness. The good can be found in creatures but in the sense in them only according to their proportion (that is by analogy). As such creaturely goodness is both similar and infinitely dissimilar to divine goodness. By αναλογια then Nyssa is able to account for dissimilarity (‘God is the good and goodness’) and similarity (a ‘man is good’ based on a measure or proportion of correspondence) in theological discourse. In contrast the apophatic method can only signify a mere denial (‘God is not good’) and is therefore inadequate to construct a theological grammar which is able to reflect the mystery of He Who Is, who is beyond the dialectic of negation and affirmation. The priority given to dissimilarity by strict apophaticism must give way to divine analogical correspondence lest meaning is entirely vacated from theological discourse.
Alas some have overlooked or departed from Nyssa’s epistemology of ‘analogical correspondence’ and instead foreground apophaticism to regulate theological discourse. Perhaps such a departure is detectable in the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, and it may have been picked up later by John of Damascus. An extreme expression of negative theology can be seen in the writings of Meister Eckhart, for whom God is ‘nonGod, a nonspirit, a nonperson, a nonimage.’17 It seems plausible that Eckhart’s approach to apophatic theology influenced a theologian closer to our time—Vladimir Lossky. Lossky’s apophaticism allowed him to state without qualification that, ‘God is not being, He is not the good.’18 Aristotle Papanikolaou has effectively demonstrated the problematic such a construal of apophatic theology poses for epistemology. Lossky’s prioritization of apophaticism precludes knowledge of theologia (God in Himself, the immanent Trinity) and permits knowledge of God only in the realm of oikonomia. For Lossky theologia remains shrouded in absolute hiddenness, for ‘not even God’s economy can reveal anything positive’ about God ad intra.19 Apophaticism construed and utilized in such a way dangerously forestalls theological discourse by emptying words of their ability to carry meaning, having lost their ontological grounding in divine correspondence. Papanikolaou aptly points to the dire consequences Lossky’s apophatic break between theologia and oikonomia has for theological discourse: ‘the God who is experienced in the economy is not the God who is free to be in communion with the non-divine order … Lossky’s apophaticism results in a break such that there is no experience of God’s immanent life.’20 If there is no revelation of God’s immanent life whatsoever, the meaning of the economic revelation is called into question. It is thus possible to conclude with Lossky that ‘God is not the good.’ Theological language without epistemological grounding in analogical correspondence of God in creation is emptied of its ability to convey meaningful and trustworthy information. Pure equivocation constitutes a nihilism of theological grammar which makes it is impossible to establish a meaningful distinction between ‘God is good’ and ‘God is not good’—all theological predication is vacated. Such radical apophatic theology may be labelled mystical theology, but it raises the question in what sense such mysticism has a justifiable claim to be called biblical and patristic. At any rate, such use of acute apophaticism appears to be in sharp contrast with Nyssa’s analogical discourse of God.
I will conclude with a brief thought about the implications which Gregory’s theory of discourse of God may have for contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologies of the essence/energy distinction. I suggest there is a very close parallel between Lossky’s prioritization of apophaticism and popularized construals of the essence/energy distinction favored by many Orthodox. I surmise that the distinction functions in a similar way to Lossky’s apophatic break between the theologia-oikonomia. The epistemological break between the essence and energy of God is modelled after Lossky’s bifurcation of the revelation of the oikonomia and the unknowable inner triune existence of God. The Orthodox essence/energy distinction risks devolving into, appropriating a phrase from Papanikolaou, a ‘non-ontology of non-being.’ The Trinitarian life is wholly obscured by complete equivocation (i.e. nothing may be predicated of God’s uncreated essence or nature); whereas univocal, ordinary predication is applicable to God as he is revealed (i.e. his uncreated energies). Gregory of Nyssa, however, makes no distinction between the divine essence and energies, for both are God’s mode of existence—the infinite interval of dissimilarity and the analogical similarity apply equally to the divine essence as they do to the divine energies. The implication is that univocal predication of God’s energies is no less unfitting as is equivocal predication of God’s essence. Furthermore, analogous discourse is befitting God’s essence as it is of God’s energies. For Gregory the only distinction that exists is that between uncreated and created existence. Similarity and dissimilarity apply equally to God’s essence as to his energies; similarity makes possible the discourse of the immanent Trinity and the divine economy. Divine dissimilarity—of essence and energy—makes it necessary to conduct discourse of God by way of analogical grammar. It appears thus that a re-thinking of the utility and formulation of the essence/energy distinction is critical for contemporary Eastern Orthodox theology. The two areas of immediate concern are the placement of an epistemological division within God by way of the essence/energy distinction and the priority given to apophaticism without an ontological grounding in creation which threatens the possibility for meaningful theological predication. Gregory of Nyssa’s construal of theological discourse in an ontology of analogical correspondence—which posits no distinction between God’s uncreated essence and uncreated energies—seems to be particularly promising and warrants further exploration to address the problematic encountered in contemporary Eastern Orthodox theology.
If predication of God is to avoid idolization theological grammar cannot proceed by univocation; words describing creatures cannot be utilized in the same sense of God. If predication is to avoid agnosticism it cannot proceed by equivocation. Words need to retain meaning so as to prevent failure to communicate information. In order to reflect the mystery of the revelation of the ineffable and inscrutable Creator to, and in, and for creation, the grammar of theological discourse would do well to follow Gregory of Nyssa in recognizing God’s utter dissimilar mode of existence whilst affirming its epistemological grounding in an ontology of proportional correspondence. Only a theological discourse which proceeds by way of a language of analogy is able—albeit always tentatively and in part—to reflect the mystery of presence and remove, of similarity in dissimilarity. Analogy is a discourse of mystery, a language which befits the transcendent God who is ever beyond negation and affirmation.
￼ Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium (hereafter CE) VIII (NPNF V, 208). Note: all references to works of Gregory in this essay are from NPNF (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Volume V. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1880ff.)
￼ Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works. Tr. C. Luibheid, (SPCK, London: 1987). p 263.
￼ John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. (Peabody, MA. Hendrickson Publishers: 1994), 1.4.
￼ CE, p 147.
￼ CE, p 206. Gregory denies the validity of univocal predication, or ‘community and identity of meaning’ as he calls it. Generation is only one example of the inadequacy of univocal language, many other instances can be found in Contra Eunomium.
￼ CE, p 98
￼ CE, p 94
￼ See CE, p 67, 69. 94.
￼ Timelessness does not denote incompatibility with time for Gregory, as time issues forth from infinity. CE, p 67-69
￼ CE, p 70 ‘owning the same cause of His being’
￼ CE, p 90
￼ CE, Book VIII, Chapter 5
￼ CE, p 194
￼ CE, p 208.
￼ CE, p 204-205
￼ Gregory of Nyssa, The Soul and The Resurrection, p 437.
￼ Meister Eckhart, Sermon 83, Renovamini Spiritu, p 208.
￼ Lossky, Vladimir, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (St Vladimirs Press, Crestwood, New York, 2002) p 40. In later writings Lossky seems to have been aware of the problematic inherent in his theological method.
￼ Papanikolaou, Aristotle. Being with God (University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana: 2008), p 99.
￼ Being with God, p 123-124.
Copyright © 2017 Robert F. Fortuin. All rights reserved.
This essay was presented at Sophia Institute’s 9th Annual International Conference on the Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church on December 9, 2016 in New York City, NY.
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Robert F. Fortuin is Adjunct Professor of Orthodox Theology at St Katherine College in San Diego, California. He holds an MLitt Divinity from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and a BA in Religious Studies from Vanguard University. He is currently hacking away at the theology of Gregory of Nyssa for his PhD in Philosophical Theology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.