St Gregory the Theologian: How to Purify Pagans into the Holy Trinity

Oration 39 was most likely delivered by St Gregory the Theologian at the evening vigil of the Feast of the Epi­phany (A.D. 381). His audience would have included the cate­chu­mens who were expecting to be baptized on the next day. These catechumens would have been prepared for baptism by Arian priests and catechists under the leadership of the recently deposed Homoian bishop of Constan­tin­ople, Demo­philus. The Gothic warlord Atha­narich may also have been present, submitting to the religion of the Roman Empire as an expression of his new alliance with Emperor Theodosius. In other words, the new bishop of Constan­tinople has only two sermons (evening and morning) to convert a group of unbaptized Arians, pagans, and bar­barians to the faith of Nicaea and introduce them to the eternally begotten Son, Jesus Christ, God from God, Light from Light, of one sub­stance with the Father. A tall order indeed.

The principal theme of Oration 39 is puri­fication—the purification needed for anyone who wishes to enter into the mysteries of Christ, the purification effected by the illumi­nating waters of holy baptism, the purification that each believing Christian must practice throughout his life.

Christ is the true light, and so St Gregory invites his hearers to draw near to him and be illumined by the truth. “It is the time of rebirth,” he declares; “let us be born from above. It is the time of refash­ioning; let us receive again the first Adam. Let us not remain what we are but become what we once were” (Or 39.2).1 Gregory understands the rebirth of baptism as a restoration of our prelapsarian humanity. In Oration 38 Gregory declared that all the litur­gi­cal cele­bra­tions of the Church have but one end, our “perfection and refashioning and resto­ration to the state of the first Adam” (38.16). With our banishment from the tree of life communion with the Holy Trinity has been interrupted; but by incorporation into Christ and regener­ation in the Spirit, the journey of theosis may be resumed. A journey and process, not consummation, for even the reborn still wear the fleshly skins of exile.

Gregory then addresses at great length the many religious cults and mystery religions his catechumens are expected to renounce. He knew their power and seductiveness. Even sophisticated pagan philosophers of his day would seek initiation into them, even though privately acknowledging the stories of the gods as myths. But the gospel of Jesus Christ is truth, not myth:

To me all their initiations and mysteries are nonsense, dark inventions of demons and fabrications of a demon-possessed mind, assisgned by time and deceived by myth. For what they worship as true they hide as mythical. If these things are true, they should not call them myths but show that they are not shameful; if false, they should not marvel, nor so recklessly hold opposite opinions about the same subject. (39.3)

Upon reading this passage I immediately thought of the pre-Christian C. S. Lewis, who found truth and beauty in the old myths. On 19 September 1931 he, Hugo Dyson, and J. R. R. Tolkien went out for a walk on a blustery night and discussed at length the relationship between the gospel and mythology. Myths, Lewis argued, were lies and therefore worth­less, even though “breathed through silver.” Tolkien and Dyson sought to persuade him that the story of Jesus Christ was myth become fact. Though the myths woven by us inevitably contain error, explained Tolkien, they also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.2 Afterwards Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greaves:

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself … I like it very much and was myste­riously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’.

Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remem­bering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myth: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’. Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myths are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of the wh. God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened. (18 October 1931)

Lewis would later elaborate on this theme in his essay “Myth Became Fact“:

Now as myth transcends thought, incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying god, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other.

A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it. The modernist—the extreme modernist, infidel in all but name-need not be called a fool or hypocrite because he obstinately retains, even in the midst of his intellectual atheism, the lan­guage, rites, sacraments, and story of the Christians. The poor man may be clinging (with a wisdom he himself by no means understands) to that which is his life. . . .

Those who do not know that this great myth became fact when the Virgin conceived are, indeed, to be pitied. But Christians also need to be reminded—we may thank Corineus for reminding us—that what became fact was a myth, that it carries with it into the world of fact all the properties of a myth. God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “pagan Christs”: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be myth­opoeic—and is not the sky itself a myth—shall we refuse to be mytho­pathic? For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: perfect myth and perfect fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.3

Given that my own imagination and spirituality dwells in the mythopoeic dimension, I have always loved Lewis’s and Tolkien’s description of the gospel as “myth become fact”; but I do wonder how the Nazianzen would have responded to Lewis’s interpretation of myth and gospel. As appreciative as he was of the Hellenistic tradition, Gregory did not have the luxury of being an Oxford don living in a culture that had been relatively Christian for well over a millennium. In the late 4th century Roman Empire, pagan mystery cults were alive and well. Only twenty years earlier Julian the Apostate had sought to revive polytheistic religion throughout the Empire. The memories of violent imperial persecution of Christians were still fresh. Gregory looked at these various cults and saw them not only as religious competitors but as demonically influenced powers that encouraged violence, immorality, and vice. Since the Fall humanity has been helplessly imprisoned in its disordered desires. Not only have we become a “base of operations for all kinds of passions, which devour horribly and consume the inner human being; but also we have set up the gods as advocates of the passions, so that sin is regarded not only as blameless but even as divine, since it appeals to this defense, the things worshipped” (39.7). Hence every believer who comes to the baptism of the Church must firmly renounce the gods and their mystery cults.

Gregory summons his hearers to purification, which begins with the fear of God, the keeping of the commandments, and the cultivation of virtue. “For the same Word,” he explains, “is both fearful because of his nature to those who are not worthy and graspable because of his love for humankind to those who are thus prepared, who have driven out the impure and material spirit from their souls and swept clean and adorned their own souls by full knowl­edge” (39.10). Those who have not repented of their rebellion and idolatry will inevitably fear the Lord, for they know him only as Judge; but those who have purified themselves will find that Christ also gives himself to sinners in love and mercy. Gregory does not demand moral and spiritual perfection of converts before he is willing to bathe them in the waters of regeneration. He holds before them the model of Zacchaeus, who, though of small spiritual stature, climbed the sycamore tree to see Jesus. Let such a person receive the word of Christ: “Today salvation has come to this house.”

Midway through his discourse, having spoken at length on the importance and necessity of purification and conversion—indeed, having purified his congregation by his preaching—St Gregory turns his attention to the feast itself, the manifestation of the eternal Son in his baptism by St John the Forerunner.

Who is this God they are remembering in this celebration? What is this divinity to whom they are offering hymns and glory? Gregory immediately excludes two heretical positions:

  • Sabellianism, which teaches that the three persons revealed in the biblical story are temporal manifestations of the transcendent Deity;
  • Arianism, which divides the three persons, reducing the Son and Spirit to creatures made by the God the Father.

As already noted, the latter is the real problem in the church of Constantinople. For several decades various forms of Arianism had dominated religious life in the capital. Between these two evils, declares Gregory, lies the true and authentic faith of the Church:

When I speak of God, be struck from all sides by the lightning flash of one light and also three; three in regard to the individualities, that is hypos­tases, if one prefers to call them this, or persons, for we will not struggle with our comrades about the names as long as the syllables convey the same idea; but one if one speaks of the essence, that is the divinity. For they are divided undividedly, if I may speak thus, and united in division. For the divinity is one in three, and the three are one, in whom the divinity is, or, to speak more precisely, who are the divinity. But we omit the excesses and omissions, neither making the union a fusion [Sabellianism] nor the division a separation [Arianism]. (39.11)

I am struck by the flexibility of Gregory’s vocabulary, which he maintains throughout his orations when speaking of both the Trinity and Incarnation. We may employ different words to speak of the mystery of the one and three, but what is important is their identity in mean­ing. Gregory is very much aware of the limitations of our theological language when speak­ing about the ineffable Creator.

But the Trinitarian rules are clear: the persons of the Godhead are irreducibly distinct; each is fully and completely divine; each possesses the one indivisible divine essence.4 How then are the divine persons distinguished from each other? By their mutual relationships and defining properties, the Archbishop answers:

The Father is a father and without origin, for he is not from anyone. The Son is a son and not without origin, for he is from the Father. But if you take it to mean an origin in time, he is also without origin; for he is Creator of time, not subject to time. The Holy Spirit is truly the Spirit sent forth from the Father, yet not as a son or through begetting but through pro­cession, if indeed one must make some innovation in words for the sake of clarity. Nor does the Father cease to be unbegotten because he has begotten, nor does the Son cease to be begotten since he is from the unbegotten—how could that be?—nor does the Spirit change either into the Father or into the Son because he proceeds or because he is God, though to the godless this does not seem to be so; for the property does not shift. For how could it remain a property if it were shifted and changed? (39.12)

Gregory knows that his presentation of the Nicene understanding of the Holy Trinity challenges the instruction that many of his catechumens have received. His teaching must have generated dozens of questions in their minds. But his task that night was not to answer all of their questions but to introduce them to the true God in whose Trinitarian Name they will soon be baptized.

  • Who is the Father? The one God who eternally begets the Son and breathes out the Holy Spirit.
  • Who is Jesus Christ? The divine Son who is eternally begotten by the Father.
  • Who is the Holy Spirit? The divine hypostasis who eternally proceeds from the Father.

Three hypostases, one divinity—for the moment this confession of the trinitarian identity of the one God is sufficient for baptismal initiation.

Yet it all sounds very abstract—and indeed it is—and so the Theologian immediately returns to the biblical story of salvation. “What is the the great mystery concerning us?” he asks. His answer:

Natures are made anew; God becomes human; the one who “rides on the heaven of heavens in the sunrise” of his own proper glory and splendor, is glorified in the sunset of our ordinariness and lowliness, and the Son of God allows himself to become and to be called Son of Man: not changing what he was—for he is changeless—but taking on what he was not—for he loves the human race—so that the incomprehensible one might be comprehended, associating with us through the medium of flesh as through a veil, since it was not proper to a nature subject to growth and decay to bear his deity in its pure form. For this reason, what could not be mixed has been mixed: not simply God and change, not simply mind and flesh, not simply the timeless one and time, not simply the uncircumscribed and measured limit, but also birth and virginity, dishonor with the one who is higher than all honor, impassible being with suffering, immortal substance with decay. For since that clever salesman for evil thought he was invincible, deceiving us with the hope of being gods, he is himself deceived by the screen of flesh, and thinking he was attacking Adam, he encountered God. In this way the new Adam succeeded in saving the old Adam, and put an end to the condem­na­tion of the flesh; death, in that flesh, was put to death. (39.13 [Daley translation])

As in Oration 38 we see the employment of paradoxical expressions to speak of the mystery of Incarnation. God unites to himself that which he is not, not only corporeality and crea­tureliness but dishonor, decay, and unjust punishment. He enters into profound solidarity with sinful humanity. In Jesus Christ the transcendent Creator becomes comprehensible, tangible, graspable. Perhaps Gregory had this Scripture in mind when he composed his oration:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life—the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us—that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)

Gregory puts on display his powerful unitive christology. Human salvation requires the author of the human story to become an actor within that story. Only thus can death be destroyed and human nature renewed. How does Christ destroy death? The Nazianzen invokes a metaphor that appears to have been popular in the 4th century: by cloaking himself in human flesh, God tricks Satan into arranging the innocent Christ’s unjust condemnation and crucifixion. St Gregory of Nyssa employed a similar figure in his Great Catechism:

For since, as has been said before, it was not in the nature of the opposing power to come in contact with the undiluted presence of God, and to un­dergo His unclouded manifestation, therefore, in order to secure that the ransom in our behalf might be easily accepted by him who required it, the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active. (GC 24)

By directly attacking God hidden deep in mortal flesh, Satan brings ruin upon himself and all his works. Just as he deceived the first Adam, so he is himself deceived by the New Adam. Death swallows eternal life and is itself slain. The curse incurred in the garden is reversed.

Finally St Gregory speaks of our Lord’s baptism in the Jordan River. His actual discussion of the event is brief. I for one would have preferred him to dwell on the subject at greater length and depth; but he is aware that the celebration of tomorrow’s feast will be full and long. A preacher can only say so much in one sermon.

Jesus comes to St John the Forerunner for baptism. Perhaps he comes to sanctify the baptizer, Gregory states, but most certainly he comes “to bury the old Adam in the water” (39.15). The salvific work of Christ was not instantaneously accomplished in the womb of the Theotokos; it embraces the entirety of our Lord’s life, culminating in his death on Calvary. The sinless One submits to a baptism meant for sinners in order to re-create sinners and open the way to the Kingdom. But then Gregory adds the following clause: “but before these things and for the sake of these things to sanctify the Jordan” (39.15). He does not elaborate upon these mysterious words, nor is the sanctification of the Jordan plainly stated in the gospel narrative. I have often wondered about this since reading Alexander Schmemann’s reflections on holy baptism:

What is important for us, however, is that the baptismal water represents the matter of the cosmos, the world as life of man. And its blessing at the begin­ning of the baptismal rite acquires thus a truly cosmic and redemptive sig­nificance. God created the world and blessed it and gave it to man as his food and life, as the means of communion with Him. The blessing of water signi­fies the return or redemption of matter to this initial and essential meaning. By accepting the baptism of John, Christ sanctified the water—made it the water of purification and reconciliation with God. It was then, as Christ was coming out of the water, that the Epiphany—the new and redemptive mani­festation of God—took place, and the Spirit of God, who at the beginning of creation “moved upon the face of the waters,” made water—that is, the world—again into what He made it at the beginning.5

To bless the waters is to restore creation to its original purpose—communion with God. “In faith,” Schmemann writes, “the whole world becomes the sacrament of His presence, the means of life in Him. And water, the image and presence of the world, is truly the image and presence of Christ” (p. 74). Or as my good friend Fr Stephen Freeman puts it, “The Kingdom of God has come in Christ and the whole world is a sacrament.” Ours is a “one-storey uni­verse.” If we would but open our eyes, we would see the divine light of the Trinity every­where present.

John is hesitant to baptize Jesus, but Jesus insists. “‘Let it be so now,'” St Gregory explains, quoting the words of Christ. “It is the divine plan” (Or. 39.15). The Baptist submits to the dominical word and baptizes the New Adam. Divinity is plunged into the Jordan River. “But Jesus comes up again out of the water. For he carries up with himself the world and ‘sees the heavens opened’ which Adam closed for himself and for those after him as he also closed paradise by the flaming sword” (39.16). Christ’s baptism by John thus anticipates his own baptism into death, his descent into Hades, and the glorification of the cosmos.



[1] Gregory of Nazianzus, Festal Orations.

[2] See Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien, pp. 146-148; also see Tolkien’s poem “Philomythus to Misomythus.”

[3] C. S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact,” God in the Dock, pp. 66-67.

[4] On Gregory’s doctrine of the Trinity, see Christopher A. Beeley, Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God.

[5] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, pp. 72-73.

(29 Oct–1 Nov 2012; rev.)

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