Analogous Predication in Gregory of Nyssa’s ‘Contra Eunomium’

by Robert Fortuin

There is a similarity of names between things human and things divine, revealing nevertheless underneath this sameness a wide difference of meanings.1

… what we can easily perceive, 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.2

The ultimate division of all that exists is made by the line between ‘created’ and ‘uncreated,’ the one being regarded as a cause of what has come into being, the other as coming into being thereby. Now 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, nor seek in the idea of their nature for the same distinguishing marks in things that are thus separated.3


It was noted in my previous essay that St Gregory of Nyssa posits an ultimate division of being, an absolute ontological and modal bifurcation of ‘all that exists’ into uncreated being άκτιστον on the one hand and created being τό κτιστόν on the other. To the former exclusively belongs the co-equal trinity of divine Hypostases whose uncreated nature or essence, its self-caused being and mode of existence, is precisely the very point of differentiation distinguishing the being and mode of existence of the latter. Created being obtains its existence (becomes or ‘comes into being’) from uncreated divine life, upon whose existence the created order wholly depends. It does not possess life in itself, but rather participates in the life of the άκτιστον Uncreate. Unlike illimitable uncreated self-existence, creaturely existence is marked by utter contingency and finitude. So it is for Gregory that the ex nihilo divine creative act implies that τό κτιστόν is upheld by God’s enduring power which from moment to moment sustains the entire created cosmos and without which it would return to nothingness. The ultimate division of being is for Gregory the dominant trope which governs his theology; indeed, it appears difficult to comprehend Gregory’s rhetoric in Contra Eunomium without an understanding of the division of being which functions as a first principle of his metaphysical understanding of all that exists. The Cappadocian father notes, ‘wide, indeed, is the interval in all else that divides the human from the divine; experience cannot point here below to anything at all resembling in amount what we may guess at and imagine there.’ The gulf between divine and creaturely existence is marked by an utterly insurmountable and indissoluble dissimilarity. The bi-fold division is not without problems however, as the absolute ontological and modal dissimilarity appears to forestall valid theological predication by reason of the complete equivocity posited by the άκτιστον/κτιστόν gulf of separation. Which is to say that Gregory’s division of being, in all its ontological clarity it does provide, raises an important question: in what way — if at all — can theology proceed to think and speak about God given the interval marked by a dissimilarity of infinite proportion? How can our words and concepts, grounded as they are in creaturely existence and bound by finitude, accurately signify divinity which knows no limits whatsoever and whose existence is utterly dissimilar to ours? Is it possible for the finite to signify the uncreated at all?

The purpose of this essay is to explore the problematic of theological predication by way of examining the instances in Contra Eunomium in which Gregory maintains the absolute interval of unlikeness while yet affirming the possibility of true signification of the divine. The possibility of theological predication seems of particular importance if the division of being is to be or remain a valid metaphysical principle worth consideration – a divine/​human interval which precludes intelligent and trustworthy human conception of the divine is ultimately irrational and an internally inconsistent construct. Without valid predication two alternatives remain: 1.) collapse the division such that God is within the hierarchy of creaturely being, or 2.) divinity remains inscrutably shrouded in impenetrable agnostic apophasis of negation. The former assures predication by way of univocal signification, whereas the latter aborts any theological predication. For Gregory neither of these are valid options – God is not to be identified with creation reckoned as a being among beings; on this basis he dismisses what he calls the ‘immediate sense’ of univocal predication. Neither are all human notions of the divine nature and attributes (‘divine distinguishing marks’) relegated to the status of impossible, and thus ultimately futile, approximations of the infinite divine abyss of absolute otherness. Throughout CE Gregory accuses Eunomius of straying from the division of being by committing the error of univocal predication: by means of the ‘immediate sense’ of the Son’s generation of the Father, the Anomoean party relegates Christ the creator to creation, thereby collapsing the divine/human distinction. The alternate error, the path of pure equivocity, Gregory maintains is precluded by the self-manifestation of God within creation – divinity is reflected in creaturely existence, albeit always exceeded by a span of greater dissimilarity. It is the twofold division of being which secures God’s transcendence from creation and guarantees a reflection of transcendent divinity in the immanence of creaturely existence. For Gregory the reflection of divine likeness within creation is surpassed by an always and ever greater interval of unlikeness implies that the only possible valid human signification of divine reality is one by means of analogous theological predication. What this may mean and how Gregory formulates such a theo-logic by analogy is explored below.

Dissimilarity and Generation

The division of being as conceived by Gregory represents an absolute ontological difference and unlikeness between God and creation. It is a modal and proportional disjunction, setting the absolute apart from the contingent, the infinite from the finite. As noted this divine unlikeness plays a significant role throughout CE; at times it appears the wide interval of dissimilarity denotes for Gregory a complete equivocation, such that knowledge about or predication of God is a complete impossibility. The pericopes which point to the most absolute form of pure apophatic equivocation are not intended in my estimation to imply sweeping epistemological limitations but function rather to accomplish a much narrower purpose in the wider scope of the Cappadocian’s argument. Comparing the differences between a horse and a man, Gregory demonstrates the inappropriate usage of univocal terms in signifying divinity by the ordinary meaning of expressions, ‘for each is naturally differentiated by its special property from the other, so neither can you 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. For as rationality is not discoverable in a horse, nor solidity of hoofs in a man, so neither is Godhead discoverable in the creature, nor the attribute of being created in the Godhead.’4 Terms used to denote meaning in κτιστόν creaturely beings are not to be used univocally to express meaning in άκτιστον uncreated being. There seems little doubt then that the inability to express by means of the same signification of meaning the two divided kinds of being, the uncreated and the created being or essence, is for Gregory based on the ontological disjunction represented by the division of being. However, in asserting complete equivocation of terms the Cappadocian father here has a particular purpose in mind, for he is not speaking in generalities.

The larger context is Gregory’s rebuttal of Eunomius’ usage of ‘generation,’ and he argues that the μονογενῆ ‘Only Begotten,’ although generated, is like the Αγέννητος ‘ungenerate’ Father in their shared divine nature (essence). This is to counter Eunomius contention that the generation of the Son from the Αγέννητος Father indicates a distinction between their respective natures (essences) based on Eunomian univocal signification of the term ‘generation.’ Accordingly, the Arian party rejected the consubstantiality of the triune Hypostases for to them the Γέννητος ‘generated’ Son is anomoean ‘wholly dissimilar’ in essence to the Father. The basis of Eunomius’ error, Gregory demonstrates, lies in his univocal use of the term ‘generation’ which is taken by Eunomius and his followers to mean the ordinary use of the term in creaturely existence, a coming into existence by human birth.5 This argument is quite important as a univocal understanding of generation introduces causation and temporality into the Godhead, such that the Father was not always Father, and there was a time when the Son was not.6 Gregory must denounce the ordinary usage of generation claimed by his interlocutor, and must insist on a radical dissimilarity of the signification of the term generation predicated of uncreated existence. So Gregory affirms, ‘if then the sense of Only-begotten points to absence of mixture and community with the rest of generated things, we shall not admit that anything which we behold in the lower generation is also to be conceived in the case of that existence which the Son has from the Father.’7 The meaning of the term generation, Gregory maintains, cannot be univocally applied to uncreated and created existence alike for following the division of being there is ‘an absence of mixture and community’ between the two separated realities. The method, means and mode of the ‘lower generation’ (that is the generation as observed in creation) cannot be used to ascribe meaning univocally to the type and mode of existence of the Son. To do so would be to collapse the division of being, to conflate the άκτιστον with τό κτιστόν. Gregory points to the ‘distinguishing marks’ which differentiate Creator from creation: ‘all things which the orthodox doctrine assumes that we assert concerning the Only-begotten God have no kindred with the creation, but the marks which distinguish the Maker of all and His works are separated by a wide interval.’8 The dissimilarity constitutes a wide interval of separation such that the created order cannot be relied upon as a way to define the paternal generation of the Son, as he affirms, ‘nature … appears not to be trustworthy for instruction as to the Divine generation.’9 Here again it must be noted that the strict apophaticism is in the immediate context of the generation of the τὸν Υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ. Equivoca­tion is indeed affirmed in no uncertain terms, but always in the context of the argument against the immediate, univocal Eunomian sense of generation.

I suggest we cannot look to Gregory for a theology of unconditional apophaticism: from these passages and the rhetoric in context the most absolute expressions of apophatic equivocation are not intended to imply a sweeping epistemological limitation across the entire spectrum of theological predication. The pericopes which indicate pure equivocity function only for the purpose to counter Eunomian utility of univocal predication of filial generation. Mutatis mutandis, the ultimate division of being for Gregory remains the fundamental trope; the ontological and modal distinction between the uncreated and the created must be upheld for his argument regarding filial generation to be valid. But there are other passages in CE which function differently in Gregory’s oeuvre and feature an interplay of likeness and unlikeness within as will be explored below.

Similarity in Name, Dissimilarity in Signification

In addition, or perhaps in contrast, to the passages foregrounding strict equivocation and dissimilarity regarding generation, Greg­ory on various occasions concedes that a real similarity between God and creation does indeed exist. The most frequent references which appeal to divine likeness in creation are based on humanity’s creation in the image of God. Yet, however true the likeness of God is reflected in creation, this sameness does not imply the validity of the reductive sense of univocal predication: similarity for the Nicaean father always presents — perhaps paradoxically — the need for what may be called a ‘signification of unlikeness.’ Although ordinary ‘creaturely’ terms and names may be used to signify divinity, the meaning of the terms has to reflect the gulf of difference between the two distinct ontological realities. For Gregory then, likeness, real or termino­log­ical, is not to be identified with univocation; likeness is always surpassed by the incon­tro­vertible distinguishing marks of the άκτιστον divine nature which demand the ‘signification of unlikeness,’ the attribution of a different sense of meaning. A prime example of Gregory’s rejection of the identification of similarity with univocation is a pericope in On the Soul and the Resurrection in which he uses the Imago Dei to affirm divine likeness in creation whilst noting the ever present dissimilarity: ‘that which is “made in the image” of the Deity necessarily possesses a likeness to its prototype in every respect; it resembles it in being intellectual, immaterial, unconnected with any notion of weight, and in eluding any measurement of its dimensions; yet as regards its own peculiar nature it is something different from that other. Indeed, it would be no longer an “image,” if it were altogether identical with that other.’10 On account of the infinite disjunction between the Maker and creation, all theological enterprise is to recognize the need for a meaning of terms which moves beyond conventional, univocal signification. Similarity of terms, pace Eunomius, requires even still the transference of ordinary meaning of terms and names to reach a higher comprehension, a ‘more exalted conception,’11 to properly signify and account for the infinitely dissimilar existence of the triune God as understood according to Nicaean metaphysics. Not surprisingly the signification of terms and names is a frequent point of contention in CE as both parties use the same terms and names. What sets the opposing groups apart is the meaning they assign to the signification of these terms. The Nyssan bishop accuses his interlocutors (Eunomius and his pupils) of failing to wean themselves ‘from the human application of words’ when theo-logizing about God:

These names have a different meaning with us, Eunomius; when we come to the transcendent energies they yield another sense. Wide, indeed, is the interval in all else that divides the human from the divine; experience cannot point here below to anything at all resembling in amount what we may guess at and imagine there. So likewise, as regards the meaning of our terms, though there may be, so far as words go, some likeness between man and the Eternal, yet the gulf between these two worlds is the real measure of the separation of meanings.12

Here the acknowledgement is made that similar terms indeed can be used to signify both creaturely and divine existence. Gregory uses the example of anthropomorphic language to ascribe both metaphysical realities: fingers, arms, eyes, ears, feeling, sight and hearing. All these and a myriad of other names are equally — and validly — applied to God and creature alike. The veracity of their respective signification however lies in the ascription of different meanings and senses to reflect the ‘gulf between the two worlds.’ Similarity in terms does not equate to similarity in signification, as Gregory opines, ‘each one of these names has a human sound, but not a human meaning.’ Another example that is used to demonstrate the need for signification of difference by identical terms is the use of the name of ‘father.’ The name equally applies to the divine and human mode of existence; however, the name “hides a distinction between the uttered meanings exactly proportionate to the difference existing between the subjects.13 Unless dissimilarity in signification is made, names or terms will hide the ontological distinction between Creator and creation. In the following passage Gregory exposes Eunomius’ failure to go beyond the univocal usage of theological language, remaining at the level of the ‘immediate’ and ‘apparent’ sense of names. Univocal predication is a collapse of the division of being — divinity’s inclusion into the realm of objects as a being among beings is the result:

Such are those arguments which are brought forward by them to establish their blasphemy, that 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

Whilst the utilization of like terms is validated, thus barring absolute equivocation, transfer of the meaning of terms has to take place in order to account for ontological and modal dissimilarity according to the division of being. Failure to ‘transfer the sense of the names’ is to risk nullification of the ontological and modal division between the Uncreate and created being. The importance of the above examples is the demonstration that both pure univocation and pure equivocation are rejected as valid means of speaking about the divine existence. This is on account of the likeness within the unlikeness of the ultimate division of being: the absolute dissimilarity of divinity precludes univocal predication, whilst divine likeness reflected in creaturely existence avoids pure equivocation (which in turn would forestall all theological predication). What remains is the question as to the possibility of valid theological predication – how is a theology of likeness in an ever greater unlikeness possible without reducing or collapsing the distinction between God and creation? For the bishop of Nyssa the possibility for such predication comes from an unlikely source: the infinity of God’s existence.

Analogical Predication to a Higher Concept

For Gregory the distinguishing mark of divinity, the ontological basis for the interval of dissimilarity, is the infinity of God’s existence. Infinity is the reason for the utter inadequacy of human signification (be they words, concepts, names, terms, expressions, and the like) of the divine. The univocity of the ‘immediate and apparent sense’ of terms always falls short of interval between God and creation. Uncreated existence pertains to matters transcending human concepts, a transcendence which exposes the sheer inadequacy of finite existence and understanding. As Gregory puts it aptly, ‘the infinity of God exceeds all the significance and comprehension that names can furnish.’15 Infinity as such seems to imply that all human speech about God, all theo-logizing, is ultimately consigned to and dismissed as pure equivocation – the modal distinction between infinity and finitude is of such proportion that it always exceeds all what can be said or thought about it. The plenitude of infinity’s excess denotes the futility of all theo-logic, assuring the forever hiddenness of the subject of its predication. Or so it seems. In the following passage infinity of the divine nature is shown to be the distinguishing mark which apparently precludes signification in the finitude of the creative order:

But the Divine Nature, being limited in no respect, but passing all limitations on every side in its infinity, is far removed from those marks which we find in creation. For that power which is without interval, without quantity, without circumscription, having in itself all the ages and all the creation that has taken place in them, and over-passing at all points, by virtue of the infinity of its own nature, the unmeasured extent of the ages, either has no mark which indicates its nature, or has one of an entirely different sort, and not that which the creation has.16

The modal dissimilarity is of such proportion that no mark of uncreated illimitable nature can be found in the bounds of time and space in which creation has its finite existence. Yet CE holds that there remains the possibility of predication, a way of overcoming the infinite disjunction and the univocal/equivocal epistemological impasse. For Gregory of Nyssa theology is possible by way of analogical predication. The validity of theology by analogy is based on the Cappadocian father’s concept of infinity: infinity always transcends but does not preclude finitude. Infinity’s illimitation accommodates limits of the creative order and thus allows for predication by means of analogy. It can be noted in the above passage that infinity is understood by Gregory to have a fundamental compatibility with the limits of creation, for it paradoxically contains time and all the creation. The infinite power, which is without interval and circumscription, has in itself, ‘all the ages and all the creation that has taken place in them, and over-passing at all points, by virtue of the infinity of its own nature, the unmeasured extent of the ages.’ Infinity’s compatibility allows for the semblance and likeness of divine uncreated existence to be perceived by means of and within the finitude of creation, by the use of ordinary language, names, and terms. Furthermore, for Gregory it is God’s very transcendence, His utter unlikeness, which guarantees the possibility of His immediate presence in the immanence of ‘all the ages and all the creation.’ It is, as Gregory states, ‘by virtue of the infinity’ of God’s boundless άκτιστον nature that He contains the created order of time and space. Analogous predication is based on divine likeness which can be found within creation, made possible by infinity’s reflection of itself in creation as a likeness which points to a greater unlikeness. For Gregory this means that ordinary terms and names can be used to speak about God with the important proviso the always greater divine unlikeness is maintained within the signification of language. Analogous predication then utilizes ordinary terms, which are easily comprehended based on their common usage, but are to lead meaning beyond the ordinary sense to a ‘higher conception’ pertaining to the dissimilar existence of God. In Gregory’s words, ‘what we can easily perceive, 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.’17 Analogy then acknowledges likeness but always looks beyond the ordinary perceived signification to the higher meaning as it pertains to the infinite uncreated existence of God. This for the Nyssan bishop requires a careful parsing of terms, always cognizant of the limitation of predication so as not to fall into the error of univocation (utilizing the immediate sense), but taking from ordinary terms or names, ‘so much from each as may be reverently admitted into our conceptions concerning God.’18 So for instance, it may be predicated of God the possession of certain qualities, actions, states and names (‘God works,’ ‘God thinks,’ ‘God’s arms,’ ‘God exists,’ ‘Son, ‘and the like). However, such expressions are not to be understood as creaturely possession, existence, state of being, title, etc., as they are customarily understood. Valid theological predication must signify God’s effective and operative power analogously, a correspondence of similarity encompassed by a greater dissimilarity. Gregory insists that terms predicated of God indicate, ‘those conceptions concerning God which correspond to them,’ without however thereby, ‘admitting the corporeal senses of the words … which our customary knowledge enables us to understand.’19 It is this correspondence of analogous likeness within creation – made possible by the compatibility of infinity to creaturely finite existence in time and space — which makes for Gregory theological speech about God a possibility, indeed the only valid way to theo-logize about the utterly transcendent God who is nevertheless immediately present to creation.



In Contra Eunomium the ultimate division of being is Gregory of Nyssa’s governing trope by means of which his defense of Nicaean metaphysics is upheld against the competing teachings of Eunomius and his followers. The importance of the division of being can be observed in Gregory’s refutation of Eunomius’ univocal and equivocal predication in his theology of the paternal generation of the Son. Eunomian univocal predication, the usage of terms and names in their immediate sense, establishes an identification of the Maker of all with creation, and constitutes a collapse of the ultimate division of being. In an effort to establish that filial generation was in time (following the infamous Arian axiom, ‘there was a time when the Son was not’) Eunomius equates the generation of the Son with the ordinary sense of creaturely generation. Gregory’s response is to establish the radical dissimilarity between God and creation, insisting on the need to assign a ‘higher conception’ to ordinary terms and names as it concerns signification of matters divine. Gregory affirms that theological predication is a possibility — indeed a necessity to avoid pure equivocation — if conducted analogically based on a divine reflections found in creation, resemblances which are always surpassed by ever greater dissimilarities. Gregory maintains that although divine likeness is to be found within creation, and likeness is the basis for analogous predication of the boundless plenitude of the existence of God, there remains then always an infinite proportion of difference due to the finitude of creaturely existence. Gregory opines about the difference remains due to the limitation of finite existence, ‘the reflections of those ineffable qualities of Deity shine forth within the narrow limits of our nature.’ These ‘narrow limits’ represent the inability of finitude to comprehend the infinite life of God in full – an inability which constitutes the dissimilarity of Gregory’s ultimate division of being. Even so, Gregory’s vision of the compatibility of divine infinity speaks of an openness of creation to the infinite divine existence; it is a given openness which allows creation to reflect, receive and to conceive of God’s transcendence analogically within the bounds of finite existence. The openness of creation, its ability to reflect and conceive divine life, avoids the epistemological dead-ends of pure univocation and equivocation. Gregory’s metaphysics of the ultimate division of being shows then its utility and genius: the absolute dissimilarity of divinity precludes univocal predication, whilst divine likeness reflected in creaturely existence prevents pure equivocation. The possibility of analogical theological predication is secured by God’s ‘immanence in transcendence’ – intelligent and trustworthy human conception of the divine is possible due to divine self-revelation of the Transcendent within the immanence of creation.



[1] 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.) p. 93.
[2] CE, p 204.
[3] CE, p 209.
[4] CE, p. 194
[5] Pointing out the Anomoeans’ error of univocal usage of ‘generation’ Gregory opines they, ‘deny His grand, sublime, ineffable generation from the Father, and would prove that He owes His existence to a creation, just as the human race, and all that is born, owe theirs.’ CE, p. 60.
[6] For an extended argument in regards to the introduction of time and causality into the Godhead by the univocal usage of generation (an introduction unanimously denied by the Nicaean fathers), see CE, p 67-68
[7] CE, p. 206
[8] CE, p. 208
[9] CE, p. 215
[10] On the Soul and the Resurrection, p.437.
[11] CE, p. 204
[12] CE, p. 93
[13] Ibid.
[14] CE, p. 149. Italics added for emphasis.
[15] CE, p. 147.
[16] CE, 209. Italics added.
[17] CE, p. 204
[18] Ibid.
[19] CE, p. 204-5 Italics added.

(4 October 2016)

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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. 

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