St Gregory the Theologian: Purifying the Theologians into the Holy Trinity

On 9 August 378 the Eastern Roman Emperor and earnest supporter of Arianism, Valens, was killed by the Goths at the Battle of Adrianople. Emperor Gratian subsequently appoint­ed one of his ablest generals as co-emperor and Augustus of the East—Theodosius of Hispania. Recognizing the ecclesiastical chaos that then existed in the East, Gratian and Theodosius jointly decided that they would promote the Nicene orthodoxy of the Western Church throughout the Empire. With the enthronement of Theodosius new possibilities opened for the embattled Eastern supporters of Nicaea. In 379 Saint Meletius, bishop of Antioch, convened a synod of 150 bishops. The primary task of the synod was to settle the episcopal dispute between Meletius and Paulinus and thus reunite the Church of Antioch; but its “wider goal,” as John McGuckin notes, “was to bring to an end the greater Arian ‘schism’ in the East.”1 The bishops were also concerned with the increasing popularity of the christological teachings of Apollinarius. The synod thus decided to invite St Gregory of Nazianzus, now living in semi-seclusion in Seleukia, to go to Constantinople and begin a preaching mission on behalf of Nicene orthodoxy, with particular emphasis on refuting Apollinarianism.

St Gregory arrived in Constantinople in the autumn of 379 and mapped out his strategy. He decided to ignore the Apollinarists altogether and to focus his rhetorical energies on refuting the extreme views of the Neo-Arian party of Eunomius. This decision was a stroke of genius. Eunomius was disliked by the then bishop of Constantinople, Demophilus. Eunomius taught that the Father and Son were dissimilar in being (anhomoian); Demoph­ilus that they were nonsubstantially similar (homoian). Both agreed that the Son is created and thus ontolog­ically subordinate to the Father; both rejected the homoousion of the Nicene creed. Gregory would argue the difference between the two was inconsequential. In essence the Anomoians and the Homoians teach the same heterodox position. The Arian­ism of Demophilus is thus damned by association. Gregory’s attack upon Neo-Arianism would culminate in his famous Five Theological Orations, delivered in the house church of the Anastasia in the summer months of 380. McGuckin believes that Oration 20 may be the first homily delivered by St Gregory after his arrival in Constantinople.2 In it Gregory addresses several of the themes that he will address in greater depth and substance. It represents his theological introduc­tion to the small remnant of Nicene believers in Constantinople.

Gregory immediately announces his disgust with “the endless talkativeness that haunts us today” (20.1). It appears that everyone in Constantinople loved to speculate upon and debate theological topics. It’s as if the entire city were one internet forum, with everyone logging on and fiercely advancing their opinions, no matter their intellectual and spiritual qualifica­tions. How easy it is to become “instant sages and designated theologians.” All one need do is opine. “I yearn,” Gregory declares, “for the philosophy that comes from above.”

I yearn for that “final lodging,” to use Jeremiah’s phrase, and I want only to be off by myself. For nothing seems so important to me as for a person to shut off his senses, to take his place outside the flesh and the world—not to fasten on human realities unless it is completely necessary, and so, in con­versation with himself and with God, to live above the level of the visible, and always to bear the images of divine things within himself in their pure state, free from the stamp of what is inferior and changeable. In this way, one is—and one is always becoming—a spotless mirror of God and divine things, assimilating light to light, and adding clarity to indistinct beginnings, until we come to the source of the light that radiates in this world and lay hold of our blessed end, where mirrors are dissolved in true reality. One can scarcely achieve this, except either by training oneself in the discipline of philosophy for a long time, and so detaching the noble and luminous elements of the soul, little by little, from what is base and mingled with darkness, or else by obtaining God’s mercy—or by a combination of the two; so making it one’s concern, as far as possible, to turn one’s gaze upwards, one might gain mastery over the materiality that drags one downwards. But before one has elevated this materiality as far as possible, and has sufficiently purified one’s ears and one’s intelligence, I do not think it is safe either to accept a position of spiritual leadership or to devote oneself to theology. (20.1)

Gregory is presenting himself to the Christians of Constantinople as one who is spiritually qualified to speak on the holy things of God. He has spent years in the contemplation of God through prayer, ascetical discipline, and meditation upon the Holy Scriptures. He has experienced the illumination of the Holy Spirit. His soul has been assimilated to the divine light. He is a true bishop and theologian of the Church.

The language employed here, of detachment from the material world and spiritual ascent to the immaterial, is the language of Plato and Origen. It is an idiom with which Gregory’s audience would have been quite familiar and comfortable. I’m not sure how comfortable I am with it, though. Gregory is not suggesting that the Holy Scriptures, the sacramental mysteries, and the economy of salvation are irrelevant to our apprehension of divine truth. Did not the Creator make us in his image precisely as embodied creatures? Did not the incomprehensible God enflesh himself in our human nature precisely so that we might know and love him and be deified in his sanctified corporeality? But the figure that we are mirrors of God reflecting the divine light, constantly being cleansed and burnished by our ascetical discipline and divine grace, until that eschatological moment “where mirrors are dissolved in true reality” is a beautiful way to express our sanctification and glorification. Yet the above passage still raises questions. Gregory appears to be arguing that the doing of theology is reserved for a mystical elite, rather than being a communal activity of the Spirit-indwelt Church. But perhaps this is the best way for Gregory to approach the pastoral problem that he is confronting in Constantinople. Christians are divided. Heresy is popular. Everyone thinks of himself as competent to speak authoritatively about God in his transcendent, ineffable reality. Into this situation St Gregory the Theologian steps, “making a loud claim to prophetic and luminous vision to inaugurate his teaching.”3

I agree that God’s self-revelation in Christ Jesus through the Spirit cannot be apprehended and known except through spiritual and moral transformation. The saving knowledge of the Holy Trinity is not book knowledge; it is not acquired as one might acquire a knowl­edge of mathematics, geology, or history. As we saw in St Gregory’s Epiphany orations, we must be purified by faith, repentance, prayer, fasting, and holy works of love and com­pas­sion; we must be formed by the Scriptures and the eucharistic life of the Church and thus become new creatures in Christ. Without such purification and illumination, without deep interior healing, conversion, and sanctification, one cannot be an authentic theologian of the Church. Even the possession of a Ph.D. is insufficient.

I graduated from seminary when I was only 28 years old. How confident I was in my theological convictions and how willing I was to assert them with the greatest authority, despite my spiritual immaturity and emotional brokenness. How little I knew, how little I still know. Daily my ignorance increases exponentially. Back in 2007 Fr Stephen Free­man publicly declared, “I am an ignorant man.” In this statement I recognize myself.4


“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is under­standing” (Proverbs 9:10). Though St Gregory does not cite this text in Oration 20, it well summarizes his approach to theological reflection. Before we dare to think and speculate, much less opine, on divine matters, we must first recall who and what is the object of our philosophizing. The living God is no ordinary object. He cannot be put under a micro­scope. He is the transcendent creator, the holy one of Israel. And so St Gregory recalls to his parishioners precisely what it means to meet this God. “I hear the story of Moses,” Gregory writes,

when God began to communicate with him: several people were invited to come near the mountain, including Aaron with his two priestly sons; all the rest were commanded to worship from afar, but Moses alone was told to approach, while the people were not allowed to go up the mountain with him. Just a little before this, flashes of lightning and claps of thunder, trumpet-calls and the sight of the whole mountain covered with smoke, awful threats and other terrifying signs of this kind, held them below. It was a great thing for them simply to hear the voice of God—and this was allowed them only when they had very thoroughly purified themselves. But Moses went up, walked into the cloud, met God and received the law—for most people, the law of the letter, and for those who can rise above the crowd, that of the Spirit. (20.2)

The story of Moses’ encounter with God on Mt Sinai features centrally in Gregory’s Five Theological Orations. Not all are prepared to converse with the Most High; not all prepared to enter into the holy cloud and safely encounter the mysterium tremendum. Who dares to look directly at the sun? Protective eyeglasses are needed. Only those who have been cleansed and purified by the Spirit are equipped to draw near as did Moses to the the Lord of Hosts. Our knowledge of the incomprehensible Deity is directly propor­tional to our spiritual condition. As St Gregory states, “To the extent that we are purified it [the divine light] appears, to the extent that it appears, it is loved, to the extent that it is loved it is again known” (40.5).

Too many people are chattering about God as if they too have, like Moses, climbed the Holy Mountain. They do not know of which they speak, for they have not personally encountered and experienced the mystery who is the LORD. Hence their speech is frivolous and their thinking superficial. They have forgotten what the Old Testament teaches of the divine holiness. When the oxen pulling the Ark of the Covenant slipt, Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the Ark, a perfectly appropriate action, yet God struck him down (2 Sam 6). Only properly purified priests were permitted to approach the Holy of Holies in the Temple; only the High Priest was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies. “Our God is a consuming fire,” the Bible tells us (Heb 12:29). McGuckin summarizes St Gregory’s approach to the doing of theology:

[Gregory] builds his first claim for authoritative hearing on the nature of inspired vision of God, gained through long ascetic purification. Anyone else who assays the heights of the mountain of theology is making a very dangerous ascent. This is evidenced by the dangers attendant when Moses received the luminous vision on Sinai, and all, even Aaron and the priests, had to stay a safe distance away. The mass of people can no more do theology than the common man can safely touch the Ark of the Covenant. To do so recklessly is fatal. The practice of theology, therefore, is a priestly activity, just like entering the veil of the holies, or a approaching the altar of the temple. It is sacrilegious for it to be done in a secular way or by those not properly chosen, and even the chosen High Priest of Israel had to purify himself rigorously when he entered the Sanctum, just as Gregory does when he discourses about God.5

What is needed in the Church of Constantinople is a spirit of humility, repentance of sin, godly fear, reverent awe, and restraint of speech. “Knowing this, then, myself,” Gregory explains, “and knowing that no one is worthy of the great God, who is both victim and high priest, unless one has first offered oneself to God as a living sacrifice, or rather has become a holy, living temple of the living God, how should I be hasty to engage myself to speak concerning God, or approve anyone who might engage himself to use such words in a rash way? To desire such a thing is not praiseworthy, and to attempt it strikes fear in the heart!” (20.4). In his Theological Orations Gregory will ground this humility of speech, not only in our present sinful condition before the all-holy Deity, but in the infinite magnitude and incomprehensibility of the divine being: God surpasses all of our concepts and theological constructions.

What then is required to become a theologian of the Church? The last paragraph of Oration 20 is particularly illuminating:

If you trust me, then—and I am no rash theologian!—grasp what you can, and pray to grasp the rest. Love what already abides within you, and let the rest await you in the treasury above. Approach it by the way you live: what is pure can only be acquired through purification. Do you want to become a theologian someday, to be worthy of the divinity? Keep the commandments, make your way forward through observing the precepts: for the practical life is the launching-pad for contemplation. Start with the body, but find joy in working for your soul. Now what human being is there who can be raised up high enough to meet the measure of Paul? Yet he, too, says that he sees “through a mirror, dimly,” and that the time is yet to come when he will “see face to face.” Are you more philosophical than others in your speech? In any case, you speak on a lower level than God. Are you, perhaps, more clever than others? Still you fall short of the truth, to the degree that your being stands second to the being of God. We have the promise that we will someday “know just as we are known.” If it is impossible to have perfect knowledge of all things here in this life, what remains for me? What is there to hope for? Perhaps you will say: the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet I consider this to be nothing else than to share in what is purest and most perfect; and the most perfect of all things that exist is the knowledge of God. Let us, then, hold on to what we have and acquire what we can, as long as we live on earth; and let us store our treasure there in heaven, so that we may possess this reward of our labor: the full illumination of the holy Trinity—what it is, its qualities and its greatness, if I may put it this way—shining in Christ himself, our Lord, to whom be glory and power for the ages of ages. Amen. (20.12)

I note the following:

1) Purification. As we have seen, this is a constant theme in St Gregory’s preaching. The Christian life is a life of continuous purification of body and soul. “What is pure,” Gregory reminds us, “can only be acquired through purification.” I am reminded of the first of Martin Luther’s 95 theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Obviously repentance above all applies to anyone who aspires to think well and accurately about God and to grow in the knowledge of God. We begin, Gregory tells us, with the keeping of the com­mandments and the living of faithful, virtuous lives in the service of Christ Jesus. We must become a “living temple of the living God” if we would dare to approach the Holy of Holies.

2) Humility and the acceptance of our finite limitations. Even if you are a clever, well-trained philosopher, still you your mind cannot comprehend, and in this life will never comprehend, the infinite Creator. The words of the Apostle Paul govern our present knowl­edge of the living God: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).

3) Patient hope in the eschatological fullness of our knowledge of God. Now we see only partly, but the Apostle promises that we will one day know God as we are presently known by God. This is the Kingdom of Heaven, the full illumination of the Holy Trinity, “what it is, its qualities and its greatness.” The life of the theologian is thus driven by eschatological hope and reward. In the meantime, we should be patient: “Grasp what you can, and pray to grasp the rest. Love what already abides within you, and let the rest await you in the treasury above.”

St Gregory now comes to the heart of Oration 20: a succinct presentation of the Nicene understanding of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity: “So we adore the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, dividing their individualities [hypostases] but uniting their godhead; and we neither blend the three into one thing, lest we be sick with Sabellius’s disease, nor do we divide them into three alien and unrelated things, lest we share Arius’s madness” (20.5). Gregory locates the orthodox understanding of God between two heretical extremes. On the one side there is the heresy of modalism, in which the Father, Son, and Spirit are understood to be temporal manifestations of one undifferentiated Deity. The historic representative of modalism was the third century heretic Sabellius, but in the fourth century a view akin to modalism was also being taught by Marcellus of Ancyra. On the other side there is the heresy of Arianism, which ontologically subordinates the Son and Spirit to the one God. The historic representative of subordinationism was the African priest Arius, whose teachings on Christ were dogmatically rejected at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Various forms of Arianism, however, continued to thrive in the Eastern Empire after Nicaea.


At this point in his oration St Gregory begins to discourse about about God in his essential trinitarian reality, independent of creation and in abstraction from the economy of salvation. He is going to talk about what modern theologians call the immanent or essential Trinity. The importance of this controversial move cannot be exaggerated. There is no reason for anyone to speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, much less believe in and adore, except for the story of salvation that we find in the Bible. But the catholic theologians of the 4th century realized that if they were going to decisively defeat the various subordinationist heresies flooding the Church, then they had to find a way to speak of the Deity as being Holy Trinity apart from the world he has freely chosen to create from out of nothing, apart even from the biblical narrative. Even if God had never made the world, he would still be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God might have chosen not to “become” Creator; but he is eternally and necessarily triune. We must therefore notionally distinguish between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity. Georges Florovsky states the theological principle:

God cannot but be the Trinity of persons. The Triad of Hypostases is above the Divine Will, is, as it were, “a necessity” or “law” of the Divine nature. This internal “necessity” is expressed as much in the notion of the “consubstan­tiality” as in that of the perfect indivisibility of the Three Persons as They co-exist in and intercompenetrate one another. In the judgment of St. Maximus the Confessor, it would be unfitting and fruitless to introduce the notion of will into the internal life of the Godhead for the sake of defining the relations between the Hypostases, because the Persons of the All-Holy Trinity exist together above any kind of relation and action, and by Their Being determine the relations between Themselves. The common and undivided “natural” will of God is free. God is free in His operations and acts. And therefore for a dogmatic confession of the reciprocal relations between the Divine Hypos­ta­ses, expressions must be found such as will exclude any cosmological motives, any relation to created being and its destinies, any relation to creation or re-creation. The ground of Trinitarian being is not in the economy or revelation of God ad extra. The mystery of the intra-Divine life should be conceived in total abstraction from the dispensation; and the hypostatic properties of the Persons must be defined apart from all relationship to the existence of creation, and only according to the relationship that subsists between Themselves.6

Florovsky’s concern is to protect the freedom of God. The world is not a necessary emana­tion from the Deity, as in Neo-Platonism. It might not have been. Hence his insistence that our theological reflection on the trinitarian life of God must exclude “any relation to creation or re-creation.” A separation between the immanent and economic Trinities, though, raises important questions and is not without its dangers. How is it possible for creatures to speak responsibly of the inner life of the Triune God apart from the revelation of that life within the world? Is the God who loves and saves us in Jesus Christ different from the ineffable Deity in his eternal being? What is the relationship between the eternal processions and the temporal missions of divine persons of the Trinity? The separation between the immanent and economic Trinities would eventually have deleterious consequences for medieval Western theology, which various 20th century theologians have sought to correct (Barth, Rahner, Pannenberg, Jenson, Moltmann, LaCugna, McCabe, Emery). Orthodox theologian David B. Hart has recently criticized contemporary Eastern theology for claiming that “the Trinitarian relations as revealed in the economy of salvation are distinct from the eternal relations of the immanent Trinity. This is theologically disastrous, and in fact subversive of the entire Eastern patristic tradition of Trinitarian dogma. Were this claim sound, there would be absolutely no basis for Trinitarian theology at all.”7 In response to the Arian challenge orthodox theologians in the 4th century began to reflect on the inner trinitarian life of God and to speculate on what precisely distinguishes the three divine hypostases from each other, without compromising the unity of the Godhead.

Why is modalism wrong? Because, Gregory answers, it lumps the three together into one hypostasis and so leaves us “with mere names, as we suppose Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the same individual. That would suggest we were just as ready to define all of them as one as we were to think each of them is nothing: for they would escape from being what they are, if they were to change and be transformed into each other” (20.6). If modalism is true, then in fact the biblical story of the Father and Jesus of Nazareth and the Spirit poured out upon the Church on Pentecost tells us nothing about the one God as he truly is. The Creator remains hidden behind his temporal manifestations, just as the playwright remains hidden behind the actors on the stage. If modalism is true, God has not revealed himself in Jesus Christ. He remains the unknown deity of the Athenians (Acts 17).

Why is subordinationism wrong? Because it gives us three hypostases of dissimilar substances—the unbegotten Deity (Father) and two created beings (Son and Spirit). The result is that the Father is alienated from the Son and his divine paternity cancelled. “For whose Father would he be,” asks Gregory, “if the Son’s nature is alienated from him, and made into something else, through this talk of creation?” (20.6). In other words, if the Son is a created being, then there was a “time” when God was not Father. Clearly this is not an adequate answer. A full answer would require Gregory to explain that if the Son were a created being, he could not elevate us into the divine life of the Trinity. “Humanity must be sanctified by the humanity of God,” he would later declare (Or. 45.12) Our salvation, in other words, requires the consubstantiality of the Son. But Gregory is limiting his reflec­tions to theologia, i.e., to the immanent Trinity, and so is content simply to point out that if Arianism is true, then God in his inner being is not Father, Son, and Spirit: he is only undifferentiated deity. Note how Arianism collapses into modalism.

Orthodox and Arians both agree: the Son is “from” the Father; the Father is his origin and source. But, the Nazianzen argues, the eternal generation of the Son by the Father is totally different from the act of creation. It is an act that timelessly and incorporeally occurs on an uncreated level. There is a way to be divine and yet be originated. “When I speak of ‘ori­gin,’ Gregory explains, “do not insert there a notion of time, nor put some third thing in between the begetter and the begotten, nor divide the divine nature by mistakenly including some­thing else with those two, who are equally eternal and fully joined” (20.7). Does this mean there are two (or three) Gods? No, because the unbegotten Father “causes” the eternal existence of the Son and Spirit and bestows upon them the entirety of the divine essence:

Nor should we minimize the Father’s rank as ultimate cause, insofar as he is Father and begetter (for he would be the cause of minor and unworthy beings, if he were not cause of the divinity that we recognize in the Son and the Spirit). If, then, we must necessarily hold on to the one God, while confessing the three hypostases, surely we must speak of three Persons, each one with its own distinctive properties. So, according to my argument, the unity of God would be preserved, and Son and Spirit would be referred back to one original cause, but not compounded or blended with each other; their unity would be based on the single, self-identical movement and will of the divine being, if I may put it that way, and on identity of substance. (20.6-7)

The Theologian is clear throughout his orations: the Holy Trinity is one because the Father is the eternal cause of the Son and Spirit. “The three are God when known together,” states Gregory, “each God because of the consubstantiality, one God because of the monarchy” (40.41). Gregory solves the question of divine unity by thinking together consubstantiality and the monarchy of the Father. The one God is God the Father, just as we confess in the Nicene Creed: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty.” The one God generates the existence of the eternal Son; the one God spirates the existence of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ and the Spirit are fully divine because they are identical in being with the Father. It is not as if the three Persons equally possess a generic divine essence (as is often thought to be the view of St Gregory Nyssen); rather, the Son and Spirit each possess the essence of the Father. As John McGuckin writes, “Gregory consistently sees the divine being as the Father’s own being, which he personally communicates to the hypostases of the Son and Spirit.”8

Gregory’s comments on the divine monarchy are not always clear. At times he seems to intimate that the divine monarchy belongs to the Godhead as a whole. The Minstrel of the Trinity is often quite fluid and flexible in his use of language. He knows that the mystery of the Holy Trinity surpasses all human comprehending. Our language cannot capture the reality that is God. But, St Gregory’s hearers cry out, we do not understand all this talk of begetting and proceeding. Of course you do not, he replies. Neither do I. So stop your curious prying. Do not trouble yourself further with how the eternal generation of the Son and Spirit occurs. These matters are above us. There are so many mysteries of the natural order that we cannot grasp, so “how do you suppose you can know with accuracy what and how great God is? This is really a lot of foolishness!” (20.11). We do enjoy our foolishness, don’t we?



[1] Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, p. 236.

[2] An English translation of Or. 20 may be found in Brian Daley, Gregory of Nazianzus.

[3] McGuckin, p. 245.

[4] I would only insist that I am infinitely more ignorant than Fr Stephen. 😀😛😉

[5] McGuckin, p. 245)

[6] Georges Florovsky, “Creation and Creaturehood,” Collected Works, III:69-70.

[7] David B. Hart, “The Myth of Schism,” in Ecumenism Today, p. 100.

[8] McGuckin, p. 294, n. 352. For a brief statement of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity from an Eastern perspective, see John Behr, “The Trinity: Scripture and the Greek Fathers.”

(20 Nov. 2012–15 Nov. 2012; rev.)

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