To See God Crucified: The Theopaschism of St Gregory Nazianzen

Before there was Jürgen Moltmann and his celebrated book The Crucified God, there was St Gregory the Theologian. Of the early Church Fathers none spoke more directly and more unitively of the death of the eternal Son. The gospel is nothing less, Gregory declares, than the proclamation of “God crucified” (Or. 45:29)! He does not shrink from asserting the suffering and death of the transcendent, impassible Creator:

We need an incarnate God, a God put to death, so that we might live, and we were put to death with him. (Or. 45.28)

God passible for our sake over against sin. (Or. 30.1)

To whom was the blood poured out for us, and why was it poured out, that great and renowned blood of God, who is both high priest and victim? (Or. 45.22)

God even died for us. (Or. 33.14)

For this reason unmingled realities are mingled, not only God with gener­a­tion, or mind with flesh, or the atemporal with time, or the uncircumscribed with measure, but also childbirth with virginity, and dishonor with what is above all honor, and suffering with the impassible, and the immortal with the corruptible. (Or. 39.13)

On what principle would the blood of the Only-begotten delight the Father? (Or. 45.22)

Whoever does not worship the Crucified is to be anathema and ranked with the God-slaughterers. (Ep. 101.5)

In his Third Theological Oration, Gregory sets forth the hermeneutical principle that guides his interpretation of Holy Scripture:

In sum: you must predicate the more sublime expressions of the Godhead, of the nature which transcends bodily experiences, and the lowlier ones of the compound, [i.e., human nature: body and soul] of him who because of you was emptied, became incarnate and (to use equally valid language) was “made man.” (Or. 29.18)

Both divine and human activities and properties, asserts Gregory, are to be attributed to the one divine subject, Jesus Christ. John Behr describes this passage as “the clearest statement of the principle of partitive exegesis from the fourth century: some things said of Christ pertain to his divine nature, while other things express what he has done for us in the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation.” Gregory is clear that Jesus is the divine actor and second person of the Trinity, “lest these sets of properties be taken as referring to different ‘parts,’ as it were, of Christ, such that there would be two parallel modes of being, each part doing its own thing.”2

Gregory’s hermeneutical rule, however, can be employed along dualistic lines. One can imagine an exegete trained in the school of Antioch exploiting it to express a real sepa­ration of the divine and human natures in order to protect the divine impassibility. As Nestorius asked, “Who could think deity susceptible to beastly hands?” (Sermon X 271). The formula pro­posed by St Leo the Great, reluctantly approved by the Council of Chalcedon, appears to express a dualistic Christology:

There is nothing unreal about this oneness, since both the lowliness of the man and the grandeur of the divinity are in mutual relation. As God is not changed by showing mercy, neither is humanity devoured by the dignity received. The activity of each form is what is proper to it in com­munion with the other: that is, the Word performs what belongs to the Word, and the flesh accomplishes what belongs to the flesh. One of these performs brilliant miracles the other sustains acts of violence. As the Word does not lose its glory which is equal to that of the Father, so neither does the flesh leave the nature of its kind behind. We must say this again and again: one and the same is truly Son of God and truly son of man. God, by the fact that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God; man, by the fact that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. God, by the fact that all things were made through him, and nothing was made without him, man, by the fact that he was made of a woman, made under the law. The birth of flesh reveals human nature; birth from a virgin is a proof of divine power. A lowly cradle manifests the infancy of the child; angels’ voices announce the greatness of the most High. Herod evilly strives to kill one who was like a human being at the earliest stage the Magi rejoice to adore on bended knee one who is the Lord of all. And when he came to be baptised by his precur­sor John, the Father’s voice spoke thunder from heaven, to ensure that he did not go unnoticed because the divinity was concealed by the veil of flesh: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Accordingly, the same one whom the devil craftily tempts as a man, the angels dutifully wait on as God. Hunger, thirst, weariness, sleep are patently human. But to satisfy five thousand people with five loaves; to dispense living water to the Samaritan woman, a drink of which will stop her being thirsty ever again; to walk on the surface of the sea with feet that do not sink; to rebuke the storm and level the mounting waves; there can be no doubt these are divine. (Tome of Leo 4; emphasis mine)

Robert Jenson pointedly translates the Latin of the bolded sentence: “Each nature does its own thing, in cooperation with the other.”3

The supporters of St Cyril of Alexandria, who formed the large majority of the bishops gathered in Chalcedon, found the Tome alarming. In their view it did not clearly and deci­sively affirm that the divine Son is the subject of the human activities of Christ.4 Perhaps contrary to Leo’s intention, given the strong unitive statements elsewhere in his letter, the above passage appears to suggest the positing of two agents in Christ. As Christopher Beeley notes:

As he moves to explain that Christ’s that Christ’s divinity and humanity are each preserved in the union (as Gregory, Augustine, and Cyril also did, Leo begins to speak of Christ as a combination of two acting subjects. Echoing Paul’s language of the “form of God” and the “form of a servant” in Philip­pians 2, Leo argues that “each form does what is proper to it in communion with the other: the Word performing what belongs to the Word and the flesh carrying out what belongs to flesh” (Tome 4). As he envisions the divine Son doing certain things and the human Jesus doing others, albeit in communion with the other nature, Leo has moved from a unitive to a dualist scheme.5

Nor did Chalcedon’s compromise formula help matters when it ambiguously asserted that the properties of the divine and human natures come together “into a single person and a single subsistent being.” The political virtue of the Chalcedonian ambiguity is that it al­lowed assent by both the dualist Antiochenes and the unitive Alexandrians (though not the extreme Cyrillians, who favored the language of “one incarnate nature”6), each opposing the contro­versial Christology of Nestorius. The Christological dualist identifies two sets of attributes and activities, divine and human, joined only verbally together in the historical person Jesus of Nazareth. At all costs the impassible Son must be protected from the sufferings of mortality.

But Beeley argues that Gregory’s hermeneutical rule must be interpreted in light of his unitive christology:

With reference to Christ, Gregory uses terms of mixture and interpenetra­tion (or commingling, perichoresis) to denote the mysteriously intimate relation­ship between the Son and his human existence, as well as to signal how bib­lical statements about Christ should be interpreted. The cross-referencing of divine and human statements about Christ in Scripture is not a merely verbal convention—and certainly not something that needs to be explained away—but rather a realistic indication of who Christ is. For Gregory, the communi­catio idiomatum is true at the level of Christ’s being. . . . Gregory’s under­standing of the unity of Christ thus reflects a particular method of biblical interpretation. . . . The key to interpreting both humble and exalted refer­ences to Christ is to understand that both kinds refer to the same Son of God, only in different ways. Lofty, or divine, statements refer to the Son in his proper, divine nature (his divinity)—both apart from and in the incarnation, since the incarnate Christ remains divine—while lowly, or human, state­ments refer to the Son inasmuch as he is composite, or incarnate, that is, to Christ’s “economy.” . . . Passages such as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1), or the titles “only-begotten Son” (John 1:18), “light” (John 8:12), “Wisdom,” “power” (1 Cor 1:24), and “image of goodness” (Wis 7:26), convey Christ’s identity as the divine Son of God and his eternal relation­ship with God the Father; whereas human expressions such as “slave” (Phil 2:7) and “he wept” (John 11:35), and especially the story of his death on the cross, refer to the Son’s human exis­tence as Jesus of Nazareth.7

The attribution of passion and death to God is not, for Gregory, a fiction or verbal trick. Though he is certainly capable of reflecting on both the Trinity and the Incarnation in abstract, philosophical terms, Gregory is above all a theologian of the biblical narrative. And at the heart and center of the drama of salvation is the God-man. The glory of the Christian faith, Gregory declares, is “to see God crucified” (Or. 43.64).

St Gregory’s theopaschism would be developed in the writings of St Cyril of Alexandria8 and dogmatically vindicated by the Fifth Ecumenical Council: “If anyone does not confess his belief that our lord Jesus Christ, who was crucified in his human flesh, is truly God and the Lord of glory and one of the members of the holy Trinity: let him be anathema” (Canon 10).

(10 October 2013; rev.)


[1] John Behr, The Nicene Faith, II:349.

[2] Ibid., II:350.

[3] Robert W. Jenson, Unbaptized God (1992), p. 123.

[4] Christopher Beeley, The Unity of Christ (2002), p. 275.

[5] See John McGuckin, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy  (2010), p. 234.

[6] Regarding Cyril’s sympathy for the monophysite position, see “One Incarnate Nature of Christ.”

[7] Beeley, pp. 189-190.

[8] On Cyril’s theopaschism, see “The Impassible Passibility of the Incarnate Word.” On Gregory’s influence upon Cyril, see Beeley, pp. 259-264.

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2 Responses to To See God Crucified: The Theopaschism of St Gregory Nazianzen

  1. Logan(mercifullayman) says:

    Recently, and I probably should respond to the 5th ecumenical post with us, but I actually think Gregory helps amplify a question I recently posed to JDW on Theodore of Mopsuestia’s use of “prosopon” and how it seemingly fits in with Gregory/Maximus and after reading this, Gregory’s use of “perichoresis.” The semantic differences abound, as well as an admittedly “lack” of deep metaphysical grammar from the Antiochian side. Yet, there is a peculiar meeting point between Theodore and Gregory on this exact point. It is precisely the grammar that defines the appearance. In my layman’s view, prosopon being seen as the appearance of a thing, the grammar defines the thing that we see. In Gregory, we encounter a “mixing” and yet that is unique to a “person” via mystery. How exactly that plays out, neither is willing to fully explain, and thankfully Maximus comes along later and opens it up, but also, both Gregory and Theodore(at least in what we retain of him) push to describe the immense need for God to suffer there in the moment. It is the crux of all redemptive acts, the main singularity of all telological points. In a way, as Christ is the “lamb sacrificed before all ages” the mystery is already there. The view shows the telological impulse of the God-man from the beginning, so in effect he fully is(in principle) and yet had to become fully man (actual) to redeem it all. The logoi fully essentialized in the Logos(it is already a piece, and yet still needs to become). The grammar again gives us the appearance. I find the ties between both schools fascinating.

    Here is the question I posed JDW for your perusal or commentary:

    “I’ve been doing a deep dive on what I can find on Theodore. After reading HUvB’s Cosmic Liturgy, I realized I had never really looked in depth at the Nestorian/Antiochian side of things. I’m utterly fascinated by Theodore. I’ve been reading through McCleod’s book on the fragments he has translated. I wanted to ask, is Teddy’s use of Prosopon really that different from the way Maximus will balance out both sides years later? I realize that Teddy lacks some of the metaphysical grammar and depth of the Confessor, but it feels like it functions in the same way. This idea that the depths of both sides are only found in the one “person” as exactly a unique person, where two natures are unconfused and yet seemingly work together, and as such, are grounded mysteriously only in that exact person. It feels like prosopon for him becomes more of what is known about the appearance of things than necessarily its ground, but what the appearance tells us, is almost exactly the conclusion that Maximus will reach. Is that wrong? Is it a semantic difference due to time rather than functionally speaking a difference in kind?”

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  2. bosrac says:

    Theopaschism seems perhaps even more radically supported in the seventh Christological anathema of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod, which anathematises those who use the expression “in two natures” in the sense of a division, or who recognise the two natures but are not content to “take the difference as in contemplation [theoria] only”.


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