Gregory has left many autobiographical writings, and his descriptions of his life are filled with lyricism and drama. He was by nature inclined to silence and retirement, and he constantly sought isolation so that he could devote himself to prayer. However, he was called by the will of God and the wills of others to words, deeds, and pastoral work during a period of extreme confusion and turmoil. Throughout his life, which was full of both sorrow and accomplishments, he was constantly forced to overcome his natural desires and wishes.
Gregory was born about 330 at Arianzum, his father's estate near Nazianzus, "the smallest of cities" in southwestern Cappadocia. His father, who in his youth had belonged to the sect of Hypsistarians, was the bishop of Nazianzus. Gregory's mother was the dominant personality in the family. She had been the "teacher of piety" to her husband and "imposed this golden chain" on her children. Both his heritage and his education developed Gregory's emotionalism, excitability, and impressionability, as well as his stubbornness and his strength of will. He always maintained warm and close relations with his family and frequently reminisced about them.
From his earliest youth Gregory cherished a "flaming love for study." "I tried to make the impure sciences serve the true ones," he said. In accordance with the customs of those times Gregory's years of study were years of wandering. He received a thorough education in rhetoric and philosophy in his native Nazianzus, in both Cappadocian Caesarea and Palestinian Caesarea, in Alexandria, and finally in Athens. He deferred his baptism until his maturity.
In Alexandria Gregory was probably taught by Didymus. In Athens he became very close to Basil, whom he had earlier met in Caesarea in Cappadocia and who was his exact contemporary. Gregory always looked back on his years in Athens with pleasure: "Athens and learning." As he later described it, it was in Athens that he, like Saul, "sought knowledge and found happiness." This happiness was his friendship with Basil, who caused him more joy and more pain than anyone else. "We became everything for each other. We were comrades, table companions, and brothers. Our love of learning was our only goal, and our warm affection for each other grew constantly. We had all things in common, and a single soul bound together that which our two bodies separated." Theirs was a union of trust and friendship. The temptations of "ruinous Athens" did not distract them. They knew only two paths, one leading to the church and their religious instructors, and the other leading to the teachers of the secular sciences. They valued their calling as Christians more highly than anything. "We both had only one exercise, which was virtue, and only one goal, which was to renounce the world for as long as we had to live in it, and to live for the future." During this period of ascetic discipline they studied both philosophy and religion.
Gregory always remained a "lover of learning." "I am the first of the lovers of wisdom," he said. "I never prefer anything over my studies, and I do not want Wisdom to call me a poor teacher." He referred to philosophy as the "struggle to win and possess that which is more precious than anything." In this he included secular learning as well: "We derive something useful for our orthodoxy even from the worldly sciences. From that which is inferior we learn about that which is superior, and we transform that frailty into the strength of our teaching." Gregory continued to defend erudition later in his career. "Everyone who has a mind will agonize that learning is our highest good. I mean not only our most noble form of learning, which despises embellishment and verbal prolixity and concerns itself only with our salvation and the contemplation of beauty, but also worldly learning, which many Christians incorrectly abhor as false, dangerous, and distant from God. But we will not set up creation against its Creator. Learning should not be scorned, as some people think. On the contrary, we should recognize that those who hold such an opinion are stupid and ignorant. They want everyone to be just like themselves, so that the general failing will hide their own imperfections, and their ignorance will not be exposed." These ideas were spoken by Gregory at Basil's funeral. He never tried to forget the lessons of Athens, and he later denounced Julian the Apostate for prohibiting Christians from teaching rhetoric and the secular sciences.
In Athens Gregory was taught by Himerius and Prohaeresius, who was probably a Christian. Most likely he was not a pupil of Libanius. He studied ancient literature, oratory, history, and especially philosophy. In 358 or 359 he returned home. Basil had already left Athens, and the city had become empty and depressing. Gregory was baptized, and decided to renounce the career of a rhetor. He was attracted by the ideal of silence and dreamed of retiring to the mountains or desert. He wanted to "hold pure communion with God and be fully illuminated by the rays of the Spirit, without anything earthly or clouded to bar the Divine light, and to reach the Source of our effulgence and to stay all desires and aspirations. In doing this our mirrors are superseded by the truth." The images of Elijah and John the Baptist attracted him. But at the same time he was overpowered by his "love for Divine books and the light of the Spirit, which is acquired by studying the word of God. Such studies are impossible in the silence of the desert." This was not all that kept Gregory in the world, because he loved his parents and considered that it was his duty to help them with their affairs. "This love was a heavy load and dragged me down to earth."
Gregory continued to lead a severe and ascetic life even amid the worldly distractions of his parents' home. He tried to combine a life of detached contemplation with a life of service to society and spent his time in fasting, studying the Word of God, prayer, repentance, and vigil. He was ever more strongly drawn to the desert in Pontus where Basil was practicing extreme asceticism. In his closeness to God Basil seemed to be "covered with clouds, like the wise men of the Old Testament." Basil summoned Gregory to share his silent labors, but Gregory was not immediately able to satisfy his own longing. Even then his withdrawal was only temporary. He later recalled with joy and light-hearted humor the time that he spent in Pontus, a time of deprivation, vigilance, psalmody, and study. The friends read Scripture and the works of Origen as their years of learning continued.
Gregory's studies ended when he returned from Pontus. His father, Gregory the Elder, was managing to fulfill his duties as bishop but with difficulty. He had neither the intellectual background nor the strength of will necessary to make his way through the arguments and controversies that raged around him. He needed someone to assist him and his choice fell on his son. This was a "terrible storm" for the younger Gregory. Gregory the Elder had authority over him both as his father and as his bishop, and he now bound his son even more firmly to himself with spiritual ties. Gregory was forcibly and "against his will" ordained by his father. "I was so grieved by this act of tyranny," Gregory wrote, "that I forgot everything: friends, parents, my native land and people. Like an ox stung by a gadfly, I returned to Pontus, hoping to find a cure for my grief in my devout friend." His feelings of bitterness were mitigated by time.
Gregory's ordination took place at Christmas of 361 but he returned to Nazianzus only at Easter of 362. He began his duties as presbyter by reading his famous sermon which starts with the "It is the day of the resurrection . . . Let us be illuminated by this celebration." In this sermon he described his high ideal of priesthood. Gregory felt that contemporary prelates were far from achieving this ideal, since most of them saw their offices as a "means of subsistence." It seemed that less was expected from shepherds of souls than from the shepherds of animals. It is consciousness of the high demands of the priest's calling caused Gregory to flee from the duties he felt unworthy and incapable of fulfilling.
Gregory remained in Nazianzus as his father's assistant for almost ten years, hoping that he would manage to avoid being called to a higher office. His hopes were in vain. In 372, once again against his will, Gregory was assigned to the bishopric of a, "a place without water or vegetation, without any civilized conveniences, a tiresome and cramped little village. There is dust everywhere, the noise of wagons, tears, laments, tax collectors, instruments of torture, and chains. The inhabitants are passing foreigners and vagrants."
The bitterness which Gregory felt at this new act of tyranny against his desire to live in retirement was magnified by the fact it was authorized by his closest friend, Basil. Gregory was indignant that Basil showed no understanding for his longing for silence and peace, and that he had forced him to become involved in his struggle to maintain his episcopal jurisdiction. Basil had instituted the bishopric in Sasima in order to strengthen his own position against Anthimus of Tyana. "You accuse me of lethargy and sloth," Gregory wrote to Basil in irritation, "because I have not taken possession of your Sasima, because I do not act a bishop, and because I do not arm myself to fight by your the way dogs will fight when you throw them a bone." Gregory accepted his office sadly and unwillingly. "I have ceded to force, not to my own convictions." "Once again I have been consecrated and the Spirit has been poured out upon me, and again I weep and lament."
Gregory's joy in this friendship was never restored. Much later at the funeral of his father he complained in Basil's presence that "in making me a priest you handed me over to the turbulent and perfidious marketplace of souls, to suffer the misfortunes of life." He reproached Basil further: "This is the outcome of Athens, our study together, our life under one roof, our companionship at one table, a single mind between the two of us, the marvels of Greece, and our mutual vow to set aside the world. Everything shattered! Everything is cast to the ground! Let the law of friendship vanish from the world, since it respects friendship so little." Gregory ultimately went to Sasima, but, by his own admission, "I did not visit the church which had been given to me, I did not perform service there, I did not pray with the people, and I did not consecrate a single cleric."
Gregory returned to his native city at the request of his father to assist him in his duties as bishop. After his father died Gregory temporarily took over the administration of the orphaned church. When it finally became possible for him to escape from his pastoral work, he "went like a fugitive" to Seleucia in Isauria. He stayed at the church of St. Thecla and devoted himself to prayer and contemplation. But once again his withdrawal was only temporary. In Seleucia he received the news of Basil's death, and this peaceful interlude was ended when he was summoned to Constantinople to take part in the struggle against the Arians.
When Gregory went to Constantinople as a defender of the Word, it was once again "not by my own will, but by the coercion of others." His work in Constantinople was difficult. "The Church is without pastors, good is perishing and evil is everywhere. It is necessary to sail at night and there are no fires to show the way. Christ is sleeping." The see of Constantinople had been in the hands of the Arians for some time. Gregory wrote that what he found there was "not a flock, but only small traces and pieces of a flock, without order or supervision."
Gregory began his ministry in a private house which was later made into a church and given the name Anastasis to signify the "resurrection of orthodoxy." Here he delivered his famous Five Theological Orations. His struggle with the Arians was often violent. He was attacked by murderers, his church was stormed by mobs, he was pelted with stones, and his opponents accused him of brawling and disturbing the peace. His preaching, however, was not without effect. "At first the city rebelled," he wrote. "They rose against me and claimed that I was preaching many gods and not one God, for they did not know the orthodox teaching in which the Unity is contemplated as three, and the Trinity as one." Gregory was victorious through the strength of his oratory, and towards the end of 380 the new emperor Theodosius entered the city and returned all the churches to the orthodox believers.
Gregory was forced to struggle not only against the Arians, but he also had to oppose the supporters of Apollinarius. He encountered further resistance from orthodox prelates, especially Peter of Alexandria and the Egyptian bishops. These at first accepted him, but then illegitimately consecrated Maximus the Cynic as bishop of Constantinople. Gregory later recalled the "Egyptian storm cloud" and Peter's duplicity with bitterness. Maximus was driven out but found a temporary shelter in Rome with pope Damasus, who had a poor understanding of Eastern affairs. Acceding to popular demand, Gregory temporarily assumed the direction of the administration of the Church of Constantinople until a Church council could be convoked. He wanted to withdraw but the people held him back: "You will take the Trinity away with you."
At the Second Ecumenical Council, which opened in May of 381 under the direction of Meletius of Antioch, Gregory was appointed bishop of Constantinople. He both rejoiced at and regretted his confirmation to the see, "which was not entirely legal." Meletius died while the council was still in session and Gregory replaced him as president. Gregory disagreed with the majority of prelates on the question of the so-called "Antiochene schism," and sided with Paulinus. The dissatisfaction which had long been building up against him suddenly burst out. Some churchmen were dissatisfied with leniency, since he had not requested the aid of the civil authorities against the Arians. Gregory had always been guided by the rule that "the mystery of salvation is for those who desire it, and not those who are coerced." Other prelates were disturbed by the inflexibility of his doctrinal beliefs, and especially his uncompromising confession of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Still others thought that his conduct was unbecoming to the dignity of his rank. "I did not know," Gregory said ironically, "that I would be expected to ride fine horses or to make a brilliant appearance perched on a carriage, or that those who met me would treat me with servility, or that everyone would make way for me as though I were a wild beast." The question of the legality of Gregory's transfer from Sasima to Constantinople was also raised at the council. It was obvious that this was a pretext for intrigue against him. In great chagrin Gregory decided to give up his see and to abandon the council. He was bitter about leaving the "place of our victory" and his flock, which he had won to the truth by his actions and words. This bitterness never left him.
On leaving Constantinople Gregory wrote to Bosporius, bishop of Caesarea, "I will withdraw myself to God, who alone is pure and without deceit. I will retire into myself. The proverb says that only fools stumble twice on the same stone." He returned home exhausted both physically and morally and filled with bitter memories: "Twice I have fallen into your snares and twice I have been deceived." Gregory sought rest and isolation, but once again he was forced to take over the administration of the widowed church in Nazianzus, "forced by circumstances and fearing the attack of enemies." He had to struggle against the Apollinarians [also referred to as Apollinarists in English] who had illegitimately established their own bishop in Nazianzus, and intrigues and quarrels began again.
In desperation Gregory asked Theodore, the metropolitan of Tyana, to replace him with a new bishop and to remove this burden which was beyond his strength. He refused to attend any councils. "It is my intention to avoid all gatherings of bishops because I have never yet seen a productive outcome of any synod, or any synod which resulted in deliverance from evils rather than addition to them." He wrote to Theodore, "I salute councils and conventions, but only from a distance because I have experienced much evil from them." Gregory did not attain his freedom immediately. He was overjoyed when his cousin Eulalius was finally invested as bishop of Nazianzus, and he retired from the world to devote the rest of his life to writing. He traveled to desert monasteries in Lamis and other places. He became weaker and frequently sought relief by bathing in warm water springs. The lyrics he wrote as an old man were filled with sadness. Gregory died in 389 or 390.
Gregory was an outstanding stylist. He was a brilliant philologist and had a great gift for language. It is true that his style occasionally seems overly refined and mannered, or excessively agitated, but the strength of his thoughts and emotions more than compensates for this. Gregory was primarily an orator, and his homilies and sermons compose the greatest part of his relatively small literary heritage. Forty-five of his sermons have been preserved, most of them written during his years in Constantinople. The most important of these are The Five Theological Orations (27-31) on the doctrine of the Trinity. These are among the most outstanding examples of Christian eloquence. They can hardly be considered improvisations.
Many of Gregory's orations were intended for delivery on feast days. Among them is the thirty-eighth oration on the Theophany or Birth of Christ. This is the oldest known Christmas oration in the East and dates from 379 or 380. The forty-fifth oration on Easter explains the saving work of Christ and was written in Arianzum some time after 383. Gregory also composed several funeral orations which are important for the historical material they contain. These include the Panegyric on St. Basil. The oration In Defense of His Flight to Pontus is especially interesting, and was later elaborated into an independent treatise on the responsibilities of the clergy. It served John Chrysostom as the model for his own tract on the priesthood. Gregory also composed an invective against Julian the Apostate some time after the emperor's death. Most of Gregory's orations were written for particular occasions.
Gregory also wrote poetry. Later editors have collected his verse into two volumes of historical poems and theological poems. These are more exercises in rhetoric than true poetry, with the exception of the personal lyrics, which display genuine emotion. Gregory was a master of poetic style, even though he occasionally abused his talents. His verse autobiography On His Life also contains much important material. Gregory never hid the didactic intention behind his poems. He hoped that his verses would serve as an alternative to pagan poetry, since the study of that could be dangerous, and he also wanted to counteract the harmful influence of Apollinarius, who expounded his theology in verse. Gregory's poetry was a great comfort to him in his old age.
Gregory wrote a large number of letters of which 245 have survived. Most of these were written during the last years of his life and deal with personal matters. The letters were collected by Gregory himself at the request of his young great-nephew Nicobulus. Gregory's letters display his mastery of rhetoric and one of them, Letter 51, is a treatise on the rules of composition. This is the reason that they can be considered as literature. With the exception of the epistles to Basil few of the letters contain much historical material. Gregory also wrote dogmatic epistles, two to Cledonius and one to Nectarius of Constantinople. The authenticity of the Epistle to the Monk Evagrius on the Divinity is doubtful.
The Influence and Authority of Gregory's Works.
The works of Gregory the Theologian were widely known, and until the end of the Byzantine empire they were considered authoritative. There were more commentaries and exegesis written about him than about any of the other fathers, with the exception of the Areopagite. Maximus the Confessor was one of the first to write a commentary on Gregory and the Areopagite, his so-called Ambigua. Later exegeses were written by Elias of Crete, Basil the New (archbishop of Caesarea; tenth century), Nicetas of Heraclea (end of the eleventh century), Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopoulus (fourteenth century), and many others, including some anonymous writers. John Zonaras and Nicholas Doxopatros also wrote commentaries on Gregory's verse. All of this demonstrates the great popularity of Gregory's works. He was one of the main sources of authority for John of Damascus, and Michael Psellus called him the Christian Demosthenes.
The Importance of the Knowledge of God in Gregory's Thought.
Gregory's doctrine on the ways of attaining a knowledge of God is one of the most important aspects of his system of theology. This doctrine is not merely an introduction to his thought. For Gregory man's basic task in life is to know God, and through this man can achieve salvation and "deification." The created mind recognizes God and through intellectual contemplation is united, or reunited, with Him. In this way God is united with man when He assumes human nature through the human intellect, which is similar to His own. In his writings against Apollinarius Gregory states that "mind is united with mind, since this is what is closest to it."
Gregory emphasizes the importance of striving to know God in both his lyrical prayers and in his theological instructions. As a theologian he develops an orthodox teaching on the knowledge of God in order to oppose the extreme positions held by certain groups of heretics, especially the rationalistic Eunomian Anomoeans and the overly fastidious Apollinarians, who consider the human intellect hopelessly sinful and beyond purification. "It is impossible for human reason to be without sin" is the way Gregory of Nyssa summarizes their thought. To oppose the Eunomians Gregory sets forth a doctrine of the limits of man's knowledge of God, which can be achieved only through ascetic discipline. To counteract the teaching of the Apollinarians he stresses that the human mind is created in the image of God and therefore radiant.
The Usefulness of Platonic and Neoplatonic Terminology for Approaching Biblical Truths.
Gregory frequently uses Platonic and Neoplatonic terminology. Part of the reason for this is that his studies had shown him that some of the philosophers who were secular or "alien," as he described them in a reference to Plato, had nevertheless waged to approach the truths contained in the Bible. Therefore their terminology could be useful. Gregory was also motivated by the need to argue effectively against certain heretical sects whose doctrines were based on secular philosophy. Furthermore, the use of Platonic comparisons and imagery had been established by the practice of the school at Alexandria. Gregory had read Plato and probably Plotinus as well. He knew that the Christian teachers Clement and Origen had taken some of their material from Plato.
At the same time Gregory always uses the Bible to defend his arguments. He supports his teaching on the ways of gaining a knowledge of God with Scriptural texts, which in fact are its primary source. In his application and interpretation of the Bible he follows the Alexandrian tradition of exegesis, which was always predominant in the patristic doctrine of the knowledge of God.
The Intellect and the Knowledge of God
God is intellect. Gregory states that the Great Intellect "or any ether perfect essence is comprehensible only by intellectual effort." The intellectual powers, the angels, are created in the "image of God. For centuries the Mind of the World, "reigning in the emptiness of the ages," saw within itself the archetypes of world that would later arise. God "invents" the "images" of the intellectual and heavenly world first, and then He designs the material and earthly world. His "thought becomes action," which is completed by the Word and perfected by the Spirit. The world of angels is the first creation to come into being. They are like God through their intellectual and spiritual nature. They are not only immutable but actually cannot be inclined to sin. Then God creates the world of visible things, and harmoniously combines the heavens and the earth. The unrefined and sensual nature of earthly things is foreign to God, but their beauty and proportion reflect His Wisdom and Strength. Within the material world God creates man, "the form of creation which is intermediate between mortality and immortality." This is a new world, and "this small world contains the great world."
Man, who "beholds visible creation and also mysteriously participates in intellectual creation," is placed on the boundary of the two worlds and at the very center of existence. It is in man that God "by His great wisdom has mingled creation." Man is created from dust and yet he bears the image of Divinity, "the image of the Immortal One, because intellect rules in them both." The Word of God "took part of the newly created world and fashioned my image with His immortal hands. He imparted to me His own Life when he gave me a soul, which is the spirit of the invisible Divinity." Gregory elsewhere refers to the soul as the "breath of God" or a "small part of the Divinity."
This is the reason that the goal of human life lies beyond the earth and beyond the senses. Man is a "new angel" who has been put on earth, and he must rise to the heavens and the radiant realm of the elect. He has been called to become a god through adoption and to fill himself with the supreme light. "This is a magnificent goal, but it can be achieved only with difficulty," Gregory writes. Man has been created in the image of God and is therefore expected to "become similar" to God. According to Gregory, the nobility of lofty souls consists only in "preserving the image within themselves, and making themselves similar to the Archetype" to the greatest degree that is possible for prisoners of the flesh. Men are able to do this because of the natural relationship which exists between the human soul and the Divine.
God as the Ultimate and Inaccessible Light.
God is the ultimate and inaccessible light, "the purest radiance of the Trinity." The second light is the order of angels, who are "rays or participants in the first light." The third light is man. Even the pagans called man a light "by virtue of the intellect within him." God is the "lamp of the intellect," and when the human intellect is illuminated by the Archetypal light it also becomes radiant. "God is to the intellect what the sun is to material nature," Gregory writes. "One illuminates the visible world, and the other enlightens the invisible world. One gives light to corporeal vision, and the other makes intellectual natures like God."
Gregory is here using the Platonic comparison of the Greatest Good and the sun, a comparison which the Neoplatonist had developed into an integral doctrine of metaphysical light. Gregory uses Platonic imagery and, like the Platonists, stresses the corrupting influence of the senses and the body in general. However, the idea which he expresses in Platonic language is not itself Platonic. According to Gregory, "similarity" to God is primarily achieved through the sacraments. The goal of the sacraments, he writes, is to "give wings to the soul, steal it from the world and return it to God, to preserve the image of God if it is whole, to support it if it is in danger, to renew it if it is harmed, and to instill Christ in our hearts by means of the Spirit. Everyone who belongs to the celestial ranks is transformed into a god by the sacraments and made a participant in heavenly bliss." It is not fortuitous that baptism is called "illumination," since it is the beginning of man's path toward the light. At the end of this path the sons of light will be completely similar to God and God will be fully contained within them.
Christ, the Word Incarnate, about Deification.
All of this is achieved through Christ, the Word Incarnate. He tries to make us gods. He assumes our flesh to redeem the age and to make the flesh immortal. The Word of the Father is an "unchanging Image" who "comes to its own image." He "unites himself with an intellectual soul for the sake of our souls, to purify that which is similar to Himself through His own similarity." The reason that Gregory objects so strongly to the doctrine of the Apollinarians is that he considers the intellect to be the highest of man's attributes. "The most important things in human nature are the image of God and the strength of the intellect." It is primarily through his intellect, which is formed in the image of God, that man can approach the Divinity.
Gregory supports the bold formulation of Basil: man is a creature but has been commanded to become a god. The path "deification" is a path of purification and the elevation of the intellect, καθαρσις. This is achieved through renouncing the material world of the senses, because the senses darken the mind. It is also necessary to concentrate on the self, to fight against the passions, and to attain a state of impassivity or apathy. In Gregory's conception an ascetic is a wise man and a philosopher, and he has much in common with Clement of Alexandria's "gnostic." As a youth in Alexandria Gregory had studied with Didymus, who shared many of Clement's ideas. Gregory's image also shows the influence of Hellenism and can be compared to the ideals of the Stoics and Platonists. It is especially similar to the ideal of Plotinus. To a certain extent the whole system of Plotinus is a doctrine of "purification" as the way God, a goal to which the spirit is drawn by desire, love, and the aspiration to completeness and perfection. Man yearns for full consciousness. To reach this end, it is necessary to renounce the body and to "go into oneself" in order to attain simplification and ecstasy.
Death in Platonism and in Gregory's System.
Plotinus also summons man to silence and isolation, to retirement and hesychia. Like Plato, he conceives of philosophy as an exercise in preparation for death. Gregory frequently paraphrases, and once directly quotes, the maxim from Plato's Phaedo that "the task of a philosopher is to release the soul from the body." For him true life is contained in the process of dying because in this world it is impossible to attain full similarity to God or complete communion with Him. Only infrequent and scattered rays from the realm of Light can reach us here. Gregory often approaches Plato by calling the body a prison.
It seems that Gregory consciously incorporates many elements of Platonism in his own philosophy. He sees nothing surprising or misleading in the fact that Hellenic philosophers were able to develop the technique of ascetic discipline or that they were aware of the natural processes of thought and the natural laws of the soul. By using the imagery of the Hellenic philosophers in his religious writings Gregory is simply speaking in the language of his time. Essentially, however, his ideals do not coincide with theirs. Plato and his followers were seeking knowledge but had no key, whereas Gregory's striving is guided by the image of Christ and the doctrine of the consubstantiality of the Trinity. His yearning for death and the liberation of the soul from the body ("a ruinous bond," he cries in a moment of despair) have nothing in common with the spiritualism of the classical philosophers. For Gregory the body, like the intellect, is deified when the Word of God assumes flesh. "If you have a poor opinion of mankind, let me remind you that you are the creation of Christ, and the breath of Christ, and a true part of Christ. You are both heavenly and earthly. You are a creation worthy of eternity. You have been created a god and through Christ's suffering you are going forward to unending glory."
Although it is necessary to renounce earthly things in this life and "not to have excessive love for our present state," there will come a time when the flesh will be resurrected. At the funeral of his brother Gregory said: "The words of wise men have convinced me that every good soul which is loved by God will, as soon as it is set free from the bonds of the body, depart from here, and it will immediately be able to perceive and contemplate the blessings that await it. As soon as that which has darkened it is purified or laid aside (I do not know how else to describe it), the soul feels a wonderful pleasure, rejoices, and gladly goes to meet its Lord. This is because it has escaped life on earth, which is an unbearable prison, and has thrown off the fetters which restrained it, keeping the mind on material things and holding down the wings of the intellect. Then the soul will see and reap the blessings that have been prepared for it."
Later the soul will receive the flesh that has been made suit able for it, with which it once shared its pursuit of wisdom here on earth. This it receives from the earth, which originally gave it flesh and then preserved the flesh. Then in a way which is incomprehensible to us and known only to God, who joined them together and then separated them, the soul will take the flesh with it to receive its inheritance of coming glory. In the same way that the soul through its close union with the flesh shared in its hardships, so now the soul gives to the flesh its joys, gathering it up completely within itself and, after the mortal and mutable part of it is swallowed up by life, becoming one with it in spirit, in mind, and in God."
This hope is the reason for renouncing material things here in this life. "Why should I cling to things that are temporal?' Gregory exclaims. "I await the voice of the Archangel, the final trumpet, the transformation of heaven and earth, the liberation of the elements and the renewal of the entire world." The goal of Gregory's ascetic discipline is the purification of the flesh, not liberation from it. "I love it as one who serves me, and I do not turn from it as though it were an enemy. I flee from it as I would from a prison, but I respect it as my coheir."
The Resurrection and the End of the Body As the Prison of the Mind.
As a Hellenist Gregory doubts that the intellect is bound to the body. However, he knows what the Hellenes did not know: he knows that the body is created by God and that it becomes a prison for the mind only through the Fall. It ceases to be a prison by virtue of the resurrection of Christ. The mixture was leavened end became new.
The Knowledge of God and Ascetic Discipline.
We approach deification by striving to know God. This can only de accomplished through ascetic discipline. "Not everyone can achieve an understanding of God," Gregory states in his writings against the Eunomians. "No, not everyone. It is not easy to attain and is impossible for those who are bound to material things." Not everyone should dare to speak freely about God. In order to do so it is necessary to have a pure or at least a purified soul. Just as the sun's radiance can be harmful to weak vision, it is dangerous for that which is corrupt to approach that which is pure. One must be free of external mire and enjoy a state of inner quietude and peace.
Man should constantly think about God, and this is the only thing that is absolutely necessary for life. The study of theology, however, should not be constant, nor should it be undertaken prematurely. It must be approached gradually and with restraint. In this way Gregory not only hopes to avoid futile and blasphemous argumentation, but he also tries to indicate that without adequate preparation the proper aim of theology will not be recognized, and thus its study will be fruitless. A troubled soul cannot truly reflect the image of the sun, and philosophy should be approached "only when we have quiet within ourselves and we are not distracted by the material objects around us." The concepts being dealt with must be clearly defined. "For if the mind is not enlightened, or if terms are carelessly used, or if the ear has not been purified and does not retain what it hears, then for any one of these reasons, as surely as from all of them together, the truth will unavoidably be lame and unsatisfactory."
The Gradual Stages of the Knowledge of God.
Knowledge of God is attained in gradual stages. Not everyone can immediately ascend the mountain, go into the cloud, and speak with God. Those who are impure do better to remain at the foot of the mountain and listen to the voice and trumpet of the orthodox instruction of others. They themselves should not try to study theology before they are ready, but should look on the mountain covered by storm clouds and lightening and accept the miracle to the greatest degree of their ability. This is not an echo of the elitism of the Alexandrian school, which divided men into "gnostics" who could attain knowledge and simple men who could not. This is instead a doctrine of degrees, each of which can be achieved through asceticism and discipline. "If you ultimately wish to be worthy of a correct understanding of the Divinity, follow the commands and do not fail to do as you are ordered, for deeds are the steps which lead to contemplation." This ladder is open to all, but not everyone ascends together. Men are not equal and neither are the gifts of the Spirit, which are given to each according to his capacity. This, however, does not destroy the unity of the Church.
Gregory states that "speaking about God is a great undertaking, but it is an even greater undertaking to purify oneself for God." For only in this way will God be revealed. "There are many paths to salvation and many paths leading to communion with God. It is necessary to follow them, and not only by means of Words. It is enough to learn the simple faith, since through this God will give salvation. There is no need to philosophize. If faith were only accessible to philosophers, our God would be extremely poor."
Gregory's Position on "Philosophizing."
Gregory is objecting not to true philosophy, but to argumentation for its own sake. He took this firm stand against excessive loquaciousness and imprecision during the period of the Arian controversies. He was opposed to idle curiosity about theological problems and insisted on a reasonable and well-defined system for acquiring knowledge. He wanted to avoid exciting the random curiosity of the crowd, which was easily stirred up by theological argument. At this point those who were initiating the sophistic tricks of Pyrrho and Chrysippus were benefiting from the general atmosphere of mistrust and confusion. Gregory therefore tried to set forth his philosophy according to dogma, and not as an independent system; by following the example of the fishermen, not Aristotle; in a spiritual way, and not by clever tricks; and according to the rules of the Church, not the rules of the marketplace." Gregory hoped to direct the attention of those who were unprepared to things which were more accessible to them than the mystery of the three suns of the Divinity. "Think about the world or worlds, about matter, about the soul, about the intellectual powers, about good end evil, about the resurrection and final judgment, about the intimate reward, and about the sufferings of Christ."
During the era of the activity of the Cappadocian fathers, the arguments of the Arians often degenerated into sophistry and a "science of blasphemy." Gregory tried to fight against this tendency, but he was never hostile to true theology or philosophy. "Speak when your words are more valuable than silence, but love silence when it is better than words." Gregory loved and respected wisdom and for exactly this reason he frequently chose to be silent. He considered that theology was a way of striving toward God, and therefore he was restrained in his use of words and much preferred quiet reflection.
Gregory's Opposition to Eunomian Confidence in Rationalism — Contemplation of God.
Gregory's quarrel with the Eunomians was not only about their methods of teaching. Their loquaciousness was fed by their optimistic confidence in their own rationalism, which Gregory did not accept. He opposed it with his doctrine of the limitation of man's ability to know God. Once again he turned to Hellenistic terminology and imagery in order to convey the teaching of the Bible. God is the ultimate desire of all speculation. The greatest good is the knowledge of God, and this can be attained through contemplation, θεωρια. “What seems to me to be best of all,” Gregory writes, “is to shut off my senses, escape from my flesh and the world, maintain no communication with human affairs that is not absolutely necessary, and to speak to myself and God, to live superior to visible things, to always carry the divine image within myself, pure and unmixed with the deceptive impressions of the lower world, and to be and to constantly become more and more a clear mirror of God and divine things, to add light to light and greater radiance to that which is less clear, until I ascend to the source of that illumination and achieve the bliss of my ultimate goal. This truth will make mirrors unnecessary."
In contemplation we do not only passively reflect the Divinity, and the soul is not simply a mirror. Contemplation means union with God and it must be achieved through practice, through πραξις. This is the only way to establish contact with God. Man is united with God and God is united with people, with "gods." As man strives to ascend, he is renewed. "I am transformed and I am improved. From being one man I become another, and I experience a divine change." Even at these heights, however, God is hidden from man. "But what has happened to me, my friends, you who share the mystery and, like me, love the truth?" Gregory exclaims. "I went forward to attain God. With this in mind I freed myself from the material world, gathered myself into myself as much as I could, and started to ascend the mountain, but when I looked around myself I hardly saw the back of God (cf. Exodus 33:11-23) or the spiritual Rock (I Corinthians 10:4), the Word who became incarnate for our sakes. Looking more closely, I saw that I contemplated not the first and pure nature of the Trinity, which is known to its own self. I contemplated not that which abides behind the first curtain and is veiled by the cherubim, but I saw that which is further outside and stretches itself towards us. What I saw is the grandeur which is visible in the creatures made and ruled by God." In other words, even in the highest stages of contemplation it is not God Himself which is revealed, but only His glory and magnificence; not the light, but the radiance of the light. Gregory insists that the nature of the Divinity is unknowable. "To claim a knowledge of what God is is to be deluded."
Gregory writes that the Godhead is the "Holy of Holies, hidden even from the seraphim." God is infinite and impossible to behold, and it is only the fact that He is infinite which is accessible to us. God is "like a sea of being, unlimited and infinite, extending round the boundaries of all conception of time and nature, and only by His intellect that we have an indication of His truth. God's image, however, is lost before we can catch it, and it slips away before we can grasp it. It illuminates that which holds pinion in us, if that is pure, in the same way that flashes of fining illuminate our vision." God is known "not by considering at is in Him, but what is around Him." Even at the highest point is striving the human mind can contemplate only an "image of truth." This image is similar to the sun's reflection on the water, which is the only means for weak eyes to know the sun. This has clearly been drawn from a passage in Plato's Politicus: this is shadows and images on the water." Gregory may have taken the comparison of the contemplation of God to the observation of a reflection in a mirror from either St. Paul (I Corinthians 13:12) or Plato (through Plotinus).
The Vision of God.
Gregory is trying to say something more than that we know God only incompletely and through reflection. In this partial contemplation we possess the truth because we truly behold Him, even though His inaccessible essence remains unknown to us. The "enlightenment" which comes from God and His "descending" action (or "energy"), which was also described by Basil, the true rays of the Divinity which penetrate all creation. That we know God "through a mirror" does not mean that this knowledge is only symbolic. It is a true vision of God and provides with a genuine participation in the Godhead. What God is by essence and nature has never been known and will never be known by man. However, God is accessible to us not only through contemplation and not only by analogy with the works and creations which express His perfection. God has been seen. He appeared to Moses and Paul, not in His own nature, it is true, but also not just as an image. God can be known through Revelation.
The Experience of Faith as Knowledge.
Thus the Cappadocians adopt the ideas of Plotinus and Philo and distinguish between "what is transcendental" and "what is immanent" within the Divinity. They make this system of philosophy more complete by introducing the doctrine of grace, which they know as a result of the Christian experience.
Gregory writes that Plato, "one of the Greek theologians," once said that "it is difficult to understand God but impossible to express Him." Gregory corrects this: "it is impossible to express God, but to understand Him is even more impossible." The experience of faith cannot be fully conceptualized and therefore God cannot be named. He is a nameless God. "O, You who are higher than anything, how else am I to express You? How can words give You praise? There are no words to express You. How can the mind gaze upon You? You are inaccessible to every mind. You are one and everything. You are not one, not single, and not everything. O, You of all names! How can I name You, who cannot be called one thing?" Theology can only describe God apophatically, by prohibition and negation. Of all the positive names only the name "He who exists" truly expresses something about God and belongs properly to Him and only to Him, just as independent being belongs only to Him. God is above essence, category, and definition, and the name God is purely relative and designates Him only in His relation to creation.
It is probable that Gregory was influenced by Clement of Alexandria in his use of apophatic theology. The two theologians are similar not only in their terminology, but also in their use of Biblical texts. Gregory greatly modifies the agnostic tone which is sometimes evident in Clement's writings.
Gregory seems to consider that apophatic theology, definition by negation, is more effective than cataphatic definition, which provides knowledge through analogy. This is because all analogies are imperfect and misleading. "Even when a small similarity is found, much more is lost, and I am left unenlightened and only with that which has been chosen for comparison." In apophatic theology a more exact description of the ineffable mysteries which are revealed in contemplation is given through negation.
The Gradual Stages of Revelation.
Knowledge of God is attained in degrees, and there are also agrees in revelation. There is a path leading upwards and a path Which comes down from above. "in the course of the ages," Gregory writes, "there have been two great transformations in human life, which are called the two Testaments. They are ascribed in Scripture as two upheavals (Haggai 2:7: "I will shake Heaven and earth, sea and land, and all nations, and the treasure of all nations will come hither"). One transformation led from idols the Law, and the other from the Law to grace. I bring the good news of the third upheaval. This world will pass away in favor of another world, which is permanent and cannot be shaken." Both testaments came into being gradually, not all at once. "We had to now that we were not being forced, but that we were being convinced." The truth was revealed in "gradual changes." In this game way knowledge of God is achieved only through gradual addition. "The Old Testament clearly revealed the Father, but the Son was present with less clarity. The New Testament revealed the Son and the Divinity of the Spirit. Now the Spirit abides with and gives us a clearer knowledge of Himself. It is fitting for the triple light to illuminate us gradually."
Revelation has been accomplished and the mystery of the Trinity is manifest. However, it has still not been fully absorbed by man. Man must penetrate the mystery until "that which has been desired for us is completely revealed." Gregory predicts that when we go inside, the Bridegroom will know what to teach and that to say to the souls which have entered. He will communicate with us and give us the most absolute and perfect knowledge. Only the pure in heart will see the Pure One and the triple radiance of the Divinity. "They will inherit the perfect light and will contemplate the holy and majestic Trinity, which will enlighten hem more fully and more purely and will ultimately unite them rich the absolute mind. This is how I conceive of the Kingdom of heaven." They will receive "absolute knowledge" of the Trinity and they will know "what It is." Similar ideas were expressed by Origen.
St. Gregory, the "Theologian of the Trinity."
The Church has given Gregory the title "Theologian of the Trinity." This is appropriate for him not only because he spent his whole life defending the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity against false and heretical teachings, but also because for him the contemplation of the Trinity is the ultimate goal of all spiritual life. "Ever since I first freed myself from the material world," Gregory writes, "I have devoted myself to radiant thoughts of heaven, and the great intellect, which has taken me away from here, has separated me from the flesh and hidden me in the heavens. Since then the light of the Trinity has illuminated me and I can imagine nothing more radiant than It. From the highest throne in heaven the Trinity pours an ineffable light down on everyone, and the Trinity is a Source for everything which is separated from the highest things by time. Since then, I say, I am dead to the world and the world is dead to me." All of Gregory's religious verses are dedicated to the Trinity. "The Trinity is my adornment and the goal of my thought," he cries. At the end of his life he prays to join "my Trinity and Its compound light, my Trinity, since even Its dimmest shadow leads me to ecstasy."
Much of Gregory's doctrine of the Trinity is developed from the teaching of Basil the Great, whom he recognized as his "teacher of dogma." Gregory uses Basil's terminology in his own theology, but in a more exact and structured way. He does not hesitate to "devise new names" when this is necessary for him to be clear and orthodox. Gregory is also influenced by Athanasius, especially in his doctrine on the divinity of the Holy Spirit, even more than Basil is. About Athanasius Gregory writes: "A great number of Fathers were first given the ability to know the doctrine of the Son, and Athanasius was later inspired to teach about the Holy Spirit."
The full strength of Gregory's personal experience and vision is evident in his doctrine of the Trinity. His basic premise is that "the Trinity is in truth a Trinity." "In truth" means in reality. The name of the Trinity, he writes, "does not enumerate several unequal things, but designates a totality of things which are equal to each other," united by and in nature. Gregory constantly emphasizes the complete unity of the Divinity. "The perfect Trinity is composed of three perfect elements." "As soon as I think about One," he writes, "I am enlightened by Three. As soon as I distinguish Three, my mind is elevated to One. When I conceive of One of the Three, I still consider It as a whole . . . Whenever I contemplate the Three as a totality, I see a single effulgence, and cannot separate or measure this compound light." The Trinity is Unity and the Unity is a Trinity. "There is an eternal sharing of nature among the eternal Three." Each of the Three contemplated by Itself is God, and all Three contemplated together are also a single God. "One God is revealed in three lights, and this is the ultimate nature of the Trinity."
Gregory tries to describe the mystery of this nature. The separate elements in God's nature can be distinguished but not divided. It is a combination of separate elements. The Divinity is a single whole in Three, and this whole is Three which contain the Divinity or, rather, which are the Divinity." It is as though three suns are contained in each other and their light is blended together. There is no division within the Trinity and It has no independent sections, just as there is no division or gap between the orb of the sun and its light. "There is a single Divinity and a single Strength which abides in the Three as a whole and in each individually, without distinction of essence or nature, Without growing or shrinking, without addition or subtraction, everywhere equal and everywhere the same, just as the heavens have a single beauty and grandeur."
Trinity and Analogies to the Created World.
Gregory avoids trying to explain the mystery of the Trinity by drawing analogies to the created world. The source of the spring, the spring itself, and the flow of the spring are not separate in time, and even when these three properties are distinguished it is clear that they are all a single phenomenon. However, Gregory writes: "I do not want to propose that the Divinity is a spring which never ceases (this is in distinction to Plotinus), because this comparison involves a numerical unity." The distinction among the waters of a stream exists "only in our way of thinking about it." The sun, its rays, and its light form a complex whole. There is the sun and there is that which is from the sun. This analogy, however, can give rise to the idea that the essence belongs to the Father and the other persons are only the "powers of God," just as the rays and the light are to the sun. Therefore analogies with creation are not helpful. They always contain the "idea of motion" or deal with "imperfect and fluctuating natures," and their unity is really only a becoming and a changing of form. That which is temporal is not God.
Gregory's Elucidation of His Mystical Vision.
The contemplation of the Trinity in its perfectly consubstantial and yet unmerged state is part of Gregory's spiritual experience, and, even though he has no confidence that he can succeed, he tries to describe the object of his meditation. He does this through a series of images, comparisons, and antitheses. His writings seem to be a description of what he has actually seen, and not only an exposition of his reasoning. Gregory expresses his own mystical experience in the formulas of contemplative theology and tries to elucidate it by using the devices of Neoplatonic philosophy. "We have one God because the Divinity is One. Everything that exists through God strives to raise itself to the One, even while believing in Three. Neither One nor the Other is more or less God. One is not first and the Other behind it. They are not separated by desire or divided by strength, and anything which is proper to divisible things has no place in them. On the contrary, that which is separable within the Divinity is not divisible. Because of the identity of their essence and powers each of them is a unity independently, and also when they are all unified. This is our conception of this unity, as much as we are able to understand it. If this conception is trustworthy, then we thank God for this knowledge."
Gregory's Qualification of Plotinus' "Overflowing Effusion."
Triunity is an interpenetration or motion within the Divinity. Gregory echoes Plotinus by stating: "The Divinity goes beyond singleness because of its richness, and has overcome doubleness because it is beyond matter and form. It is defined by triunity because it is perfect. The Trinity is overflowing, and yet it does not pour itself out into eternity. In the first case there would be no communion, and in the second case there would be disorder." This idea is directly drawn from Plotinus, and Gregory identifies with it: "This is the same for us." But he is careful to qualify himself: "We do not dare to call this process an excessive effusion of good, as did one of the Hellenistic philosophers who, when speaking about the first and second causes, referred to an 'overflowing cup'." Gregory rejects this interpretation of Divine Being on the ground that it involves uncaused, independent motion.
For Gregory the Triunity is a manifestation of Divine Love. God is love and the Triunity is a perfect example of "unity of thought and internal peace."
The Existence of Trinity as Outside of Time.
The complete unity of the Trinity is primarily expressed by the fact that Its existence is unconditionally outside of time. God is eternal by nature and is beyond sequence and divisibility. It is not enough to say that God has always been, is, and will be. It is better to say that He is because He "contains within Himself the whole of being, which has no beginning and will never end." "If there has been One from the beginning, there have also been three." The Divinity "is in agreement with itself. It is always identical, without quantity, outside of time, uncreated, indescribable, and has never been and will never be insufficient for Itself."
It is impossible to conceive of any change or "division in time" within the Divinity. "For," Gregory writes, "to put together a Trinity from that which is great, greater, and greatest (that is, the Spirit, Son, and Father), as if it were the radiance, rays, and sun, would be to make a graduated ladder of Divinity. This would not lead the way to heaven but would lead down from it." This is because the mutual relationship of the hypostases of the Trinity is entirely superior to time.
God the Father as the Source.
"There should be no one so zealous in his love for the Father that he would deny Him the attribute of being a Father. For whose Father can He be if we consider that He is separated not only from creation, but also from the nature of His own Son! One should not detract from His dignity as a Source, since this belongs to Him as a Father and Generator." "When I call Him a Source, do not imagine that I am referring to a source in time, or that I am presuming an interval between the Begettor and the Begotten. Do not separate their natures or falsely assume that there is something existing to separate these two coeternities abiding within each other. If time is older than the Son, this is because the Father caused time before the Son."
Thus, the being of the Father and the generation of the Only-Begotten coincide exactly, but also without confusion. The generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit should be Considered to have taken place "before there was time." The Father never began to be a Father in time since His very being had no beginning. He "did not take being from anyone, not even from Himself." He is properly the Father "because He is not also the Son." Gregory draws this idea from Athanasius.
Although the hypostases are coeternal and superior to time they are not independent of each other. The Son and the Spirit "have no beginning in relation to time" but They are "not without an ultimate Source." The Father, however, does not exist before them because neither He nor They are subject to time. The Son and the Spirit are coeternal but, unlike the Father, they are not without a source, for they are "from the Father, although not after Him." This mysterious causality does not entail succession or origination. Nothing within the Trinity ever comes into being or originates because the Divinity is completion, "an endless sea of being." Gregory is aware that this distinction is not easy to comprehend and that it can be confusing to "simple people." "It is true that that which has no beginning is eternal, but that which is eternal is not necessarily without a source, if this source is the Father."
Gregory demonstrates that to overemphasize the dignity of the Second and Third Hypostases is in effect to detract from the First: "It would be extremely inappropriate for the Divinity to achieve complete perfection only after changing something about Itself." "To cut off or eliminate anything at all from the Three is equal to cutting off everything. It is a rebellion against the whole Divinity." Gregory asks: "What father did not begin to be a father?" And he answers: "Only a Father whose being had no beginning." In this same manner the Son's generation is coincident with His being.
The Divine Unity and Identity of Essence.
The complete and immutable unity of the Divinity determines the consubstantiality, the "identity of essence," of the hypostases of the Trinity. But the distinctions of each hypostasis do not disappear within the Divine unity. For Gregory, as well as for Basil the Great, the unity of the Divinity means an identity of essence and a monarchy that is from the Father and to the Father. The influence of Platonism is evident in the description of this "dynamic" unity. In Gregory's theology this dynamic aspect is dominant, and in this respect he is closer to Athanasius than to Basil.
Although Gregory conceives of the basic difference between "essence" and "hypostasis" as the difference between the general and the particular, he makes relatively little use of this concept. "What we hold in honor is monarchy," Gregory writes. "Not a monarchy which is limited to one person (this is in distinction to Sabellius), but one which is composed of an equality of nature, a unity of will, an identity of motion, and a convergence to a one, single Whole of those elements which are from this One. This is impossible in a created nature," that is, a nature which is complex, derived, or originated. Everything which the Father has belongs also to the Son, and everything which belongs to the Son belongs to the Father, so that "nothing is particular because everything is held in common. Their very being is common and equal, although the being of the Son is from the Father." But this should not be "given more attention than is proper."
Differences between Gregory and Basil.
The individual properties of the Three are immutable. These "properties," ιδιοτητες, “do not distinguish essence, but are distinguished within one essence.” In Gregory's understanding the concepts “hypostasis” and “property” are nearly the same. He also uses the expression “three Persons” τρια προσωπα, which Basil avoids. Gregory is responsible for developing a theological terminology which is close to Western usage through his identity of hypostasis and person, τρεις υποστασεις η τρια προσωπα.
Gregory also differs from Basil in his definition of the individual properties within the Trinity. He avoids the terms "fatherhood" and "sonship" and does not describe the personal attribute of the Spirit as "sanctity." He usually defines the properties of the hypostases as ungeneratedness, generation, and procession, αγεννησια, γεννεσις, εκπορευσις. Possibly he uses the term procession, εκπορευσις, to designate an individual property of the Father in order to put an end to the speculation of the Eunomians that “ungeneratedness” defines the essence of the Divinity. He takes this word from Scripture ("who proceeds from the Father." John 15:26) in the hope of avoiding pointless arguments on the "fraternity of the Son and the Spirit." Gregory also attempts to forestall possible efforts to explain the exact meaning of these terms through analogies with the created world. Only the Trinity Itself knows "the order It has within Itself." How is the Son generated? How does the Spirit proceed? Divine generation is not the same as human generation. It is impossible to equate things which cannot be compared. "You have heard about generation. Do not attempt to determine how it occurs. You have heard that the Spirit proceeds from the Father. Do not try to find out how." "How? This is known by the Father who generates and the Son who is generated, but it is veiled by a cloud and inaccessible to you in your shortsightedness."
The Hypostatic Names and Mutual Relationship of Persons.
The hypostatic names express the mutual relationship of the persons, σχεσεις. The three persons are three modes of being, inseparable and yet not confused, each “existing independently." They cannot be compared in such a way that one can be said to be greater or less than the others. Neither is one before or after the others. "The Sonship is not an imperfection" in comparison with the Fatherhood, and "procession" is not less than "generation." The Holy Trinity exists in complete equality. "All are worthy of worship, all have dominion, they all share a single throne and their glory is equal."
The Trinitarian Common Name.
The confession of the Trinity expresses a complete knowledge of God. Gregory refers to the baptismal creed and asks, "In whose name are you baptized? In the name of the Father? Good! However, the Jews also do this. In the name of the Son? Good! This is no longer according to Jewish tradition, but it is not yet complete. In the name of the Holy Spirit? Wonderful! This is perfectly complete. But are you baptized simply in their individual names, or in their common name? Yes, in their common name. And what is this name? There is no doubt that this name is God. Believe in this name and you will flourish and reign."
The Divinity of the Holy Spirit.
Much of Gregory's writing is devoted to defending the divinity of the Spirit. This issue was still being debated in 370 and also later at the Second Ecumenical Council. "Now they ask," he writes, "what do you say about the Holy Spirit? Why do you introduce something which is not known from Scripture? This is said even by those who have an orthodox understanding of the Son." "Some consider the Spirit the energy of God, some a creature, and some believe that He is God. Others have not made up their minds on anything. They say that this is because of their respect for Scripture, as if nothing about this were clearly set forth in it. Therefore they do not honor the Spirit, but also do not deny His dignity, and take no definite position on Him, which is pitiful. Even among those who recognize His divinity some are orthodox only in their hearts, whereas others dare to confess Him with their lips." Amidst this confusion Gregory's teaching is clear. "Listen well: the Spirit has been confessed by God. I say further, 'You are my God'. And for the third time I cry out, 'The Spirit is God'." "Nothing has yet caused such commotion in the universe," Gregory writes, "as the boldness with which we proclaim that the Spirit is God."
Gregory follows the example of Athanasius by citing the baptismal creed in defense of his doctrine of the consubstantial divinity of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is accomplished in the name of the Holy Trinity, the unchanging, indivisible Trinity whose members are completely equal. "If the Holy Spirit is a creature, you have been baptized to no purpose." "If the Spirit is not worthy of veneration, how does He make me a god in baptism?" Gregory asks. "And if He is to be venerated, is He not also to be adored? And if He is to be adored, how can He not be God? Each of these things implies the next, and this is the true golden chain of our salvation. Through the Spirit we are reborn, and in being reborn we are given new life, and through this we know the dignity of the One who has given us new life." Therefore, "to separate One from the Three is to dishonor our rebirth, and the Divinity, and our deification, and our hope." "You see," Gregory writes in conclusion, "what the Spirit, who has been confessed by God, gives to us, and what we are deprived of if He is cast out." The Spirit is the Sanctifier and the source of enlightenment, "the light of our intellect, who comes to those who are pure and makes man a god." "By Him I know God, for He Himself is God and makes me a god in this life." "I could not bear to be deprived of the possibility of becoming perfect. Can we be spiritual without the Spirit? Can one who does not honor the Spirit participate in the Spirit? And can one who has been baptized in the name of a fellow creature honor the Spirit?" Athanasius reasons in a similar way.
Scripture bears witness to the Spirit, but its evidence is not entirely clear and we must "penetrate the surface to know what is contained within it." Gregory explains that Scripture should not be understood only literally. "Some things which are contained in Scripture do not exist, and other things exist but are not found in Scripture. Some things do not exist and Scripture says nothing about them, but other things exist and are also described in Scripture." Scripture says that God sleeps and becomes awake. This is a metaphor, not a description of reality. Conversely, the words "ungenerated," "immortal," "eternal," and others have not been taken from Scripture, but it is obvious that "although these words are not found in Scripture, nevertheless they have meaning." We should not lose sight of things for the sake of words.
The Spirit was active among the fathers and the prophets, for He enlightened their minds and showed them the future. He was proclaimed by the prophets who foretold the great day when the Spirit would be poured out on all mankind (Joel 20:28). The Spirit also bore witness to Christ. "Christ was born as the Spirit foretold. Christ was baptized and the Spirit was present. Christ was tempted and the Spirit raised Him up. Christ's strength was perfected and the Spirit was with Him. Christ ascended and the Spirit succeeded Him." The Savior revealed the Spirit in stages, and the Spirit gradually descended to the disciples, sometimes in the breath of Christ, sometimes working miracles through them, and finally appearing in tongues of fire. The whole New Testament is filled with evidence of the Spirit and His powers and gifts. "I tremble when I consider the richness of His names," Gregory cries. "Spirit of God, Spirit of Christ, Mind of Christ; He gives new life in baptism and resurrection. He breathes where He wills. He is the Source of light and life. He makes me a shrine (1 Corinthians 6:19) and makes me a god. He perfects me. He is present at baptism and He is conferred on me through baptism. He does everything that God does. Through tongues of fire He bestows His gifts and makes us Bearers of the good news, Apostles, Prophets, Pastors, and Teachers." He is "another Comforter" and "another God." Although the divinity of the Spirit is not explicitly proclaimed in Scripture, there is much solemn evidence of this. Gregory explains the reticence of Scripture on the doctrine of the Spirit by showing that revelation takes place in economic stages.
The spiritual experience of the Church is also a form of revelation, and through this experience the Spirit makes clear His own dignity. It further seems to Gregory that "even the best pagan theologians had a conception of the Spirit, but did not agree on a name for Him and called Him the Intellect of the world, the external Intellect, and so forth." Gregory is here referring to Plotinus and the Neoplatonic conception of the World Soul. Basil the Great also applied many of Plotinus' definitions to the Holy Spirit in his treatise to Amphilochius.
Gregory develops his doctrine of the Spirit analytically. He reaches the conclusion that the Spirit is divine from the fact that the Gifts He gives are divine. However, for Gregory, this remains at best a pedagogical device to be used in argumentation. In his personal experience the divinity of the Spirit is revealed through the contemplation of the Trinity, and the truth of the Triunity reveals the immediate consubstantiality of the Spirit. Therefore Gregory does not designate the individual property of the Spirit as "sanctity," which would have an economic meaning. He does, however, speak about "procession," εκπορευσις, εκπεμψις, in order to indicate the place of the Spirit in the indivisible triunity of the Divinity.
Human Life and Union with God through the Single Person of the God-Man.
Gregory sees the meaning and goal of human life in "deification," in actual union with the Divinity. This is possible because "that which is dominant" in man has been made in the image of God. More importantly, it is possible through the "humanity of God." From this point of view a clear dogma of the completeness of the two natures united in the Hypostasis and Person of the God-man is vitally important for Gregory's doctrine of salvation. Gregory's teaching is similar to that of Athanasius, but while Athanasius opposes the heresies of the Arians by stressing the absoluteness of the Divinity within the God-man, Gregory in writing against Apollinarius emphasizes Christ's humanity. The basic principle of his soteriology is that if human nature has not been fully assumed by Christ, it can be neither healed nor saved by Him. As part of his polemic against the Apollinarians he advances the doctrine of the "substantial" union "of two natures" within the single person of the God-man.
Christ was born, the laws of nature were breached, and the lower world became full. "I proclaim the glory of this day. He Who is incorporeal has become incarnate, the Word has been firmly fixed, the Invisible has become visible, the Impalpable can now be touched, Timelessness has begun, and the Son of God has become the Son of man." The birth of Christ is a theophany and "God is made manifest in being born." God has not only become manifest, for the incarnation is a true "assumption" of human nature. "He assumes my flesh in order to save His image and to make the flesh immortal," Gregory writes. "Each mystery of Christ causes me great rejoicing, and the greatest joy is my perfection, that I am made perfect, given new life, and that I return to the First Adam." This is a "new and wonderful commingling."
"When man failed to become god, God made Himself a man to do me honor," Gregory writes. "God was uncompound from the beginning. He became united with human nature, and then He was nailed to the cross by the hands of His murderers. This is our teaching about God, Who has become one with us." Christ is God incarnate, and not a defied man. In Christ "human nature is completely joined with the whole Divinity, not in the way that a prophet, divinely inspired, is in communion with God Himself, with something divine, but in essence, so that God has humanity in the way that the sun has rays." In Christ humanity is "anointed" not merely by an action of God but by His presence. At the same time God has completely assumed human nature. "In brief, Gregory says in conclusion, "our Savior is both one and the other." He then qualifies himself: "But He is not only one plus the other, for both of them are commingled so that God has become man and man has been deified." Gregory chooses words which emphasize the intimacy and completeness of this union in which the components nevertheless retain their individuality.
The Two Natures of Christ, the God-Man.
In the eclectic language of Hellenism κρασις, ουγκρασισ, and μιξισ, all of which designate “commingling,” stand in opposition to ουγχυσις, which implies absorption, and παραθεισις, which indicates a mechanical union or juxtaposition. According to Alexander Aphrodisias, the author of a well-known commentary on Aristotle, κρασις signifies the “complete and mutual union of two or more bodies in such a way that each retains its own essence and substantial properties." He uses the image of fire and iron as an example, and this image was adopted by the patristic writers as a symbol of the unity of natures in the God-man. Later the use of this term was altered. "Commingling" was also the most exact term from the vocabulary of philosophy to express the orthodox conception of the unconfused unity of the two, at least until it was tainted by the heretical usage of the Monophysites. In "commingling" the doubleness is maintained and the unity is also recognized. It signifies "one" and "two" at the same time, and this is precisely the mystery of the Person of Christ. He is not two, but "one from two."
Gregory clearly distinguishes the "two natures" of Christ. One nature is "subject to suffering" and the other is "immutable and above suffering." This is the main thrust of his exegetical polemic against the Arians. "There was a time when He who is now despised by you was superior to you. Now He is a man, but once His nature was not compound. He remains that which He has always been, and He has assumed that which He previously did not have." Gregory examines the evidence of this double nature contained in the Gospel by considering the "mystery of the names," the mystery of the double names and the double symbols, the manger and the star. All names and all symbols, however, refer to one and the same, "One God from both."
"He was a mortal, but also God; He was from the tribe of David, but He was also the Creator of Adam; He had a body, but was incorporeal; He was borne by the Virgin, but could not be contained; the cradle held Him, but the Magi were led to Him by the star. As a man He struggled, but He cannot be overcome and He defeated the tempter three times. As a mortal He was subject to sleep, but as God He tamed the seas. He was tired by His journeys, but He gave strength to the weak. He prayed, but who is it who hears the prayers of those who are perishing? He was a Victim, but also the High Priest. He is a Priest, but He is God." He is One Person, One God-man, One Christ, One Son, and "not two sons," which is the false teaching of Apollinarius. His two natures have been joined in essence and have penetrated each other. Gregory is the first to use the word κρασις to express the unity of the two natures in the God-man. “His natures and His names have been commingled and therefore they each are transformed into the other."
The Divinity remains immortal and humanity is "deified." The unity of the two natures in the person of Christ is based on the principle that "that which is strongest is victorious." By "deification" Gregory does not imply that human nature is transformed or that it undergoes transsubstantiation. What he means is that it is in complete communion and interpenetration with the Divinity. In the God-man human nature has been deified at its very source, for God Himself has become human. By virtue of this "commingling" each name is now applicable to the other.
Gregory devotes a great deal of attention to the suffering and death of God, since through this he confesses the unity of natures in the Person of the God-man. For this reason he insists on the name "Bearer of God": "Anyone who does not recognize that Mary is the Bearer of God is estranged from the Divinity." The reason for this is that deification is possible for us only through the humanity of the Word and its consubstantiality with us. In the Word humanity is deified through commingling with God.
The Apollinarian Problem.
Apollinarius does not understand how "two complete components" can commingle and form a new and complete whole. It seems to him that if God is "completely" united with human nature in Christ, then Christ has two natures, and the person of the God-man is a unity only externally. Such a union cannot bring salvation. Apollinarius' reasoning rests on the premise that everything which is real and "complete" is also hypostatic, so that each nature can be fully realized only in an individual person. Therefore, if the human nature of Christ is complete, He must contain a human person or hypostasis, but the unity of the person of the God-man presupposes a unity of nature, μιαν φυσιν. In order to defend the unity of the person of the God-man Apollinarius is forced to deny the full "completeness" of Christ's human nature. "An incomplete component united with a complete component does not result in a double nature." The other possibility is to deny the completeness of the Divinity in Christ. This Apollinarius does not accept because it invalidates the truth of salvation. It seems to him, and not without reason, that this extreme position was the doctrine of the Antiochene fathers.
Apollinarius also considers that two intellects cannot be united since two sources of thought and two wills must always be in conflict. For him this is especially true because of the inclination of the human will to sin, and therefore he denies that Christ has a free and mutable human intellect. Christ assumes animate flesh only, only a body and a soul, and not a human "spirit" or "mind." He becomes flesh, not man. Apollinarius is a trichotomist. He holds that the flesh and the soul of Christ are human but that His "spirit,” νους, is the Divine Word. Thus the humanity of Christ is only similar to ours, and not consubstantial with it. Furthermore, Christ's animate body necessarily “coexists” with the Divinity. It is an abstraction which has no independent existence apart from the Word which assumes it. In effect Apollinarius denies any independence of action to the human nature in Christ, which is merely a tool of the Word. His explanation of the union of that which is moved and its mover shows the influence of Aristotle.
Gregory does not try to deny the premises of Apollinarius' reasoning, nor does he argue with his identification of nature and person, φυσις and υποστασις. Instead, he attacks his doctrine of salvation. Gregory tries to show that salvation is impossible in the terms which Apollinarius proposes because according to his conception no true union of the two natures takes place. "If Christ has flesh but no intellect," he exclaims, "then I am deceived. His body is mine, but whose soul does He have?" Gregory demonstrates that human nature is a unity and cannot be divided into parts.
Essentially the Apollinarians deny the human nature in Christ. "They deny His human nature and internal similarity to us by introducing this new idea of a likeness that is merely visible. This would purify only the visible part of us . . . When they say that His flesh is only a semblance and not real, this means that His flesh does not experience any of the things that are proper to us, and that His flesh is free of sin." Gregory concludes that "with such flesh the Divinity is not human." "Assuming flesh" without "assuming human nature" cannot bring redemption. "That which has not been assumed has not been healed, but that which is truly united with God is saved. If only a part of Adam fell, then that part which is assumed is saved, but if all of Adam fell, then he is completely saved only by complete union with Him who has been born man in completeness." "Do not believe that our Savior has only the bones and sinews of human form," Gregory writes, "behold a whole man and recognize his Divinity."
To the objection of Apollinarius that "two complete components cannot both be contained in one body" Gregory answers that this "co-presence" must not be understood only in the physical sense. It is true that bodies are impenetrable and that "a vessel with one capacity cannot hold two such measures." However, this is not true for things that are "intellectual and incorporeal." "I contain in myself a soul, and an intellect, and the gift of speech, and the Holy Spirit. Even before I existed the Father contained in Himself this world, this totality of visible and invisible things, and also the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is the nature of everything that is conceptual, since such things are not corporeal and can be indivisibly united to things which are similar to them, and also to bodies. Our hearing can encompass many sounds and our sight perceives a multitude of features in visible objects, and this is also true of our sense of smell. Our senses do not limit each other or crowd each other out, and a tangible object is not made less by the great number of other objects."
The union of God and man is a mystery. We can approach an understanding of it only by means of our intellectual perception, which is what Apollinarius had attacked. Man's intellect has been formed in the image of God, and it is through this intellect that he can be united with God, the Highest Intellect, since that is what is "nearest to it and most like it." When two intellects are united, they do not lose their individuality, but neither are they necessarily in conflict. The type of combination which the Apollinarians suggest would result in a purely external unity. "Their likeness resembles a mask worn at a theatrical performance," and in their conception God is not the God-man but merely wears a "curtain of flesh." Their argument that the intellect is inclined to sin is also invalid because the flesh too is sinful. Is it not to heal these weaknesses that God takes on human nature? "If the worse element is assumed so that it is sanctified by Christ's assumption of the flesh, why is not the better element also assumed so that it may be sanctified through Christ's assumption of human nature? If the old mixture is leavened and becomes new, why cannot we also be leavened and be commingled with God, so that we may be deified through the Divinity?" It seems to Gregory that the reasoning of the Apollinarians implies that the intellect is the only property of man which is condemned and beyond salvation. He therefore accuses them of granting too much dignity to man's physical nature. "You worship the flesh, for the man you propose has no intellect." For Gregory, on the contrary, even if the intellect is in need of healing, it is the property of man which is most open to salvation because it has been created in the image of God. "The renewal of the image" is the goal of redemption and the Word comes to man as an Archetype to its image.
Gregory's Christology is in accord with his religious ideal. The argument he presents against Apollinarius is not so much a system of theology as a confession of faith. He is able to express his faith in very precise language and anticipates the formulas later used in the fifth century, "two natures" and "one person."
The Crucifixion and Salvation.
Humanity is saved through union with God. However, the Incarnation alone does not accomplish salvation. Gregory stresses that the Crucifixion is vital for redemption. The death on the cross is a manifestation of the greatest good and the greatest gift of God, "the suffering of God, the Lamb, who is slaughtered for our sins." The Crucifixion is a sacrifice, "the purification not of a small part of the universe and not for a short time, but of the whole world forever." Gregory emphasizes that the Savior's death is a sacrifice, and he compares this sacrifice to the sacrifice in the Old Testament through which it was foretold. The Crucifixion is a sacrificial offering and Christ is the true Lamb, the High Priest, and the Conciliator. His death is a sacrifice and a ransom, λυτρον.
Christ takes upon Himself all the sins of humanity, and it is for this reason that He suffers. "He has made Himself one of us," and "He is the Head of our body." He is not merely a substitute for us. Gregory tries to express the intimacy of the Savior's assumption of our sins through such neologisms as αυτοαμαρτια, the “very principle of sin." He who is without sin is not defiled by assuming sin. The God-man ascends the cross of His own will. He carries our sins with Him so that they are crucified too. Gregory glorifies "the cross and nails, by which I am released from sin."
Gregory and the Notion of "Ransom."
For Gregory the full significance of the Crucifixion is not expressed by the concepts of sacrifice and retribution alone. "There is one more question and dogma, neglected by many other people, but in my opinion worth examining," he declares in his oration on Easter. "To whom has this blood which is shed for us been offered, and why? I mean the blood of our great and glorious God, the High Priest and Sacrifice. We were in the power of the evil one, sold under sin, and buying ourselves injury with our wickedness. Since a ransom is paid only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom this ransom was offered and for what cause? If it is to the evil one, then this is an outrage! If the robber receives a ransom not only from God, but a ransom that is God Himself, then he has such an immense payment for his tormenting that it would have been right for him to have left us alone. But if it is paid to the Father, then in the first place I ask how? And next, why was the blood of His Only-Begotten Son pleasing to the Father, who would not accept even Isaac when he was offered by his father, but changed the sacrifice and put a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it therefore not evident that the Father accepts this sacrifice not because He asks for it or demands it, but because man must be sanctified by the humanity of God, and so that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tormentor, and draw us to Himself through the mediation of the son, who arranges this to honor His Father, whom He obeys in all things." It may seem that Gregory gives no direct answer to this question, but he does in fact respond, although only briefly: "Let the rest be respected in silence."
The Cross as Rebirth and Purification.
The Cross is victorious over Satan and hell but it is not a ransom. The Cross is a gracious sacrifice and it is not a payment to God. The Cross is made necessary by human nature, not by the Divinity. The root of this necessity is man's sin and the degeneration of the body. Through Adam's fall the flesh was weighted down and became a corpse which burdened the soul, but the flesh is purified and relieved of its burden through the blood shed on the Cross. In one passage Gregory refers to the Crucifixion as a baptism "by blood and suffering." Elsewhere he speaks about the two kinds of purification which are Christ's gift to us: "We are purified by the eternal Spirit who purges the earlier damage in us which we received from the flesh, and we are also purified by our blood (for I call the blood which Christ my God has shed our own), which expiates our original weaknesses and redeems the world." The Crucifixion is a rebirth, and therefore baptism has a part in it. We die with Christ and are buried with Him, and we arise from the grave and through the grave. "It is necessary for me to suffer this redeeming change, so that just as good can lead to grief, so from grief our good arises."
At the Crucifixion the original purity of human nature was restored. "We needed God to become flesh and die in order to give us life. There were many miracles at that time. God was crucified and the sun darkened and again shone forth, for it was fitting for creatures to suffer with their Creator. The veil was torn, and blood and water were shed from His side: one because He was a man; the other because He was above man. The earth trembled and rocks were sundered for the sake of the Rock. The dead arose as a pledge of the final resurrection of all men, and there were miracles at the sepulcher. But not one of these is equal to the miracle of my salvation. A few drops of blood renewed the whole world and did for all men what rennet does for milk by drawing us together and binding us into a unity."
Death as Resurrection.
Christ accepted everything proper to man, "everything which is filled with death," and by dying He destroyed death. Death is Resurrection, and this is the mystery of the Cross. Therefore, on Easter Gregory speaks about the suffering of God. "On this day Christ was summoned from the dead. He turned aside the sting of death, destroyed the dark chambers of hell, and gave freedom to all souls. On this day He arose from the tomb and showed Himself to the people for whose sakes He was born, died, and arose, so that we, renewed and redeemed from death, could rejoice with You in the Resurrection."
For the whole of humanity Christ as a man is a "leaven for the mixture." The salvation and "deification" given in Christ are given to everyone who is united with Him in the holy sacraments and through the effort of striving towards Him. For Gregory, all the ages of history have foretold the coming of Christ. He sees the Old Testament and the Passover under the law as an "indistinct prototype of a prototype." "This is what I dare to say." But the Easter we celebrate now is also incomplete. It also is only a prototype. "Soon our participation will be more absolute and more complete, and the Word will drink new wine with us in the Kingdom of the Father, teaching us and revealing to us what He now shows us only partially. What is this drink and this food? For us it is to learn and for Him it is to teach and to communicate His word to His pupils, for teaching is also food for him who gives nourishment." First of all He will teach us about the Trinity. In the Father's Kingdom we will hear the voice of rejoicing and we will see the "vision of glory," the "most complete and most perfect radiance of the Trinity, which will no longer hide itself from intellects which are bound and distracted by the senses. There the intellect will be able to perceive and contemplate the Trinity completely, and It will illuminate our souls with the light of the Divinity." This is similar to Origen's conception of the afterlife, although Origen considers that the just will learn the secrets of the cosmos, not that they will contemplate the Trinity.
The Fate of the Unrepentant.
Gregory has written little that deals with eschatology. He frequently speaks of man's call to "deification," and preaches the necessity of ascetic discipline. He summons sinners to repentance but mentions the fate of the unrepentant only in passing. Their greatest punishment will be rejection by God, and this will be a torment and a "shame to the conscience" that will have no end. For just men God is light but for the unjust He is fire, and "this most terrible fire is eternal for the wicked." Possibly Gregory admits that purification can be achieved after death because he writes that sinners "may there be baptized by fire. This is the last baptism, the most difficult and prolonged, which eats up matter as if it were hay and consumes the weight of each sin." It is probable that he had in mind only the fate of unrepentant Christians because he also writes: "I know a fire which is not purifying, but avenging. The Lord sends it down like rain on every sinner, adding to it brimstone and storms. It was prepared for the devil and his angels and for everyone who does not submit to the Lord, and it burns up the enemies around Him." However, Gregory adds that "some may prefer to think that this fire is more merciful and worthy of Him who punishes." Gregory does not agree with the extreme position of the Origenists.
From The Eastern Fathers of the Fourth Century.