Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God: In Your Light We Shall See Light






Publication: Church History
Author: Karras, Valerie A
Date published: March 1, 2012

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As Christopher Beeley observes in the preface to Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God : In Your Light We Shall See Light , "one of the great lacunae of recent patristic scholarship has been the relative neglect of Gregory's work in comparison with the other two Cappadocians" (viii). Over the past decade, however, scholarly interest in Gregory has finally expanded to include translations of his works by Martha Vinson, Lionel Wickham, Peter Gilbert, and Brian Daley; the volume on Nazianzen edited by Jostein Bortnes and Tomas Hagg Gregory of Nazianzus: Images and Reflections (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006); and John McGuckin's massive "intellectual biography" of Gregory St. Gregory of Nazianzus (Crestwood N.Y.: St. Vladimirs' Seminary Press, 2001). Beeley's Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity is a worthy addition to this new scholarship, examining Gregory's trinitarian theology as a foundation to explore other areas of the Cappadocian bishop's thought.

As the title of this volume suggests, Beeley approaches his material more systematically than purely historically, concentrating on the theology in Gregory's treatises, orations, and letters, and devoting less attention to some other aspects. Overall, though, Beeley has used a methodology which is far from pure systematic theology and which in fact does examine Gregory's trinitarian theology contextually, weaving it into a broader personal as well as theological tapestry whose threads include Gregory's familial and educational background and the historical and polemical context of his writings.

The primary context for Gregory's trinitarian writings was, of course, his polemical engagement with the Eunomians (with an occasional sideswipe at modalists and other heterodox movements). He cleverly demonstrates Gregory's intelligence and creativity in developing a strong trinitarian theology that successfully avoided and, in fact, wickedly critiqued, both modalist tendencies and subordinationism in the multiple theological currents circulating in the second half of the fourth century. Beeley analyzes the Five Theological Orations not in isolation but in conjunction with the trinitarian themes which Gregory had already presented in his earlier orations, as well as with careful attention to their own unique polemical and ecclesiastical context. For example, Beeley recognizes in the Second Theological Oration--a paean to an apophaticism grounded in the complete unknowability and transcendence of God's essence--and its thematic predecessor, Or . 20, the importance of Moses as a type to whom Gregory repeatedly returned to describe the human encounter with the divine and its paradoxical twinning of transcendent experience with divine inaccessibility.

Chapter 1 is also a valuable scholarly contribution for the corrective balance that Beeley provides to many earlier scholars' overemphasis on God's unknowability. By placing the Second Theological Oration within its Eunomian polemical context, and by adroitly interpreting it intertextually both within itself and in relation to other works, Beeley shows that Gregory's insistence on God's unknowability refers to reason alone and is counterweighed by his equally held conviction that we may know God experientially at least "in part," that is, that we may experience God to the extent humanly possible. This has dramatic implications both for Gregory's trinitarian theology, in terms of immanence and transcendence, and for his existentially--and christologically--grounded soteriology. This foundation to Gregory's soteriology is fundamental yet often is neglected or reduced, as in Norman Russell's survey of deification, to an "ethical" deification that involves the human person's gradual similitude to a collection of divine attributes. By contrast, Beeley observes in chapter 2 (on the Son/Jesus Christ) that Gregory's "language of divinization indicates a real and growing participation in God's nature, so that human beings, in a mysterious but real way, become filled with God's being and 'divinized' to the extent that they, as creatures, are capable" (119).

In chapter 3, on the Holy Spirit, Beeley highlights both Gregory's theological creativity in developing a taxis theologias (an "order of theology") to explain the progressive revelation of the Spirit, and his courage and intellectual honesty in confronting head-on the core pneumatological issues and insisting on the Spirit's full equality and co-divinity. In both chapters 3 and 4 (the Trinity), Beeley also deconstructs, critiques, and refutes the interpretations of other scholars on important trinitarian issues such as the monarchy of the Father vis--vis the person-essence controversy or the economic work of the Son and the Spirit as universal and particular, respectively.

Perhaps Beeley's most important contribution to understanding the broader context of Gregory's trinitarian theology is lifting up the Cappadocian's existentially predicated soteriological vision of theology as central to the Christian life. As Beeley effectively summarizes in his preface, Gregory's trinitarian theology "is at every point soteriological" and "represents the fundamental origin and goal of the Christian life" (viii). Thus, Beeley builds on Brian Daley's and Susan Holman's examinations of Gregory's social ethics, emphasizing in chapter 5 the Cappadocian bishop's genuine pastoral concern for his flock, especially the poor and ill, and integrating his pastoral ministry into his broader theological vision. Beeley notes, for example, that in Ep . 171 "Gregory interweaves the priest's work of theological confession, teaching, prayer, and eucharistic sacrifice in a single act of ministry" (265).

Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity is not without its fault. Beeley's enthusiasm for his subject occasionally leads him to overplay the unique quality of Gregory's theology: he marginalizes the influence of neo-Platonism (Plotinus is relegated to a couple of pages dealing with neo-Platonism and a half-dozen footnotes) and, while he rightly emphasizes the importance of Origen, other early Christian theologians are briefly mentioned or treated in just a few pages in his conclusion ("Gregory Among the Fathers"). Nevertheless, Beeley's holistic approach to Nazianzen is the volume's strength, revealing how Gregory's trinitarian theology is inextricably linked to his soteriology, a soteriology that in turn can be understood only existentially as a process of ascetic purification, intellectual and spiritual growth in knowledge and wisdom, and self-emptying love and service for others that results in and is itself the result of a progressive life in the Holy Spirit that unites the Christian to Christ and His Church in a never-ending process of deification.

Author affiliation:

Southern Methodist University

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