Church Father Friday is the ongoing curation of Patristic texts. These short selections from church history remind us of where we’ve been, and what God has done throughout history for the Church. I pray these excerpts are a blessing to you.
If you’ve followed Chuch Father Friday for a bit, you know that Gregory of Nazianzus is a regular. His theological rhetoric and genius hooked me from the moment I first read his 5 Theological Orations 5 years ago. He was not only a gifted mind, but he was also a loving pastor and shepherd who wasn’t afraid of standing between his sheep and heretical wolves. He is a wonderful literary companion in the pursuit of holiness and theological insight. Today, we will be looking at Gregory at his rhetorical finest; here is a brief overview of his theological poem “On the Spirit.”
Against the “Spirit Fighters”
Gregory dealt with numerous heretical groups which often had contrasting and opposite views. One of these groups was the Pneumatomachians, or “Spirit Fighters.” A key difficulty related to this group is that it formed and grew as opposition to Arianism. As Athanasius described them, “…certain persons, having forsaken the Arians on account of their blasphemy against the Son of God, yet oppose the Holy Spirit, saying that He is not only a creature, but actually one of the ministering spirits, and differs from the angels only in degree. In this they pretend to be fighting against the Arians; in reality, they are controverting the holy faith” (1).
As is the sad case with theology, when we focus too heavily on polemics, we can overreact and lose a part (or the whole) of what we were defending in the first place. By ontologically placing the Son and Father above the Spirit, the Pneumatomachians undermined the Trinity and therefore denied the One True God. As with everything, there were varying positions and extremes in this camp. Some argued that the Holy Spirit was an expression of the power of God, while others argued that he was “less than God, but more than a creature” (2).
Or, in the words of Gregory, “…some have conceived of him as an Activity, some as a Creature, some as God; and some have been uncertain which to call Him, out of reverence for Scripture, they say, as though it did not make the matter clear either way. And therefore they neither worship Him nor treat Him with dishonor, but take up a neutral position, or rather a very miserable one, with respect to Him. And of those who consider Him to be God, some are orthodox in mind only, while others venture to be so with the lips also” (3).
This is the context in which Gregory wrote his theological poem “On the Spirit.” It asserts the Spirit as an equal person within the Trinity who is therefore worthy of equal worship. Here is an overview of Gregory’s poetic argument for the divinity of the Spirit:
On the Spirit
Introducing his poem, Gregory exclaims, “Mind, why do you hesitate? Sing also the praise of the Spirit and do not in a form of words divine that which inherent nature has not dissevered. Let us bow in awe before the mighty Spirit, who is God in heaven, who to me is God, by whom I came to know God, and who in the world makes me God” (4). In this opening statement, Gregory highlights two key aspects of the Holy Spirit: First, He is consubstantial with the Father and the Son. And second, because of his equality in the Godhead, he is utterly worthy of praise (5).
In regards to the first point, the consubstantial nature of the Spirit in the Trinity, Gregory states, “He [the Spirit] is not the Son (For there is a single good Son of the one supreme excellence), nor is he outside the invisible Godhead, but is of equal glory” (6) The equality and glory of the Spirit, to Gregory, is not simply bound in His relationship to the Son, but it is because he is of the same substance of the Son (and Father) that his glory is equal. Gregory also points out that the Trinity, being utterly united in essence, is essential for the consistency of the Gospel and economic work of salvation, “For God’s nature is not unstable, in flux, having to reassemble itself. Stability belongs to God. In thinking thus you would be offering a pure sacrifice in your heart” (7).
The Divinity of the Holy Spirit had been beautifully defended by Athanasius and Basil. But the ecclesiastically minded Basil was hesitant to say that the Spirit was consubstantial with the Father and Son. This wasn’t because he didn’t believe it, but because he was playing his cards close to the chest. Gregory, however, was quick to use the term “Homousios” with the Spirit and made this a central part of his theological career (8). For Gregory, the Godhead (and therefore the Christian faith) stood or fell on the consubstantial nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (9).
The Worship Worthy Holy Spirit
The consubstantial nature of the Trinity, to Gregory, leads to doxology, “In the Trinity I teach, there is one power, one understanding, one glory, one might. That is why the unity is beyond flux, possessing great glory in the single harmony of Godhead. So great is the splendor which the Trinity has revealed to my eyes, from the wings of the cherubim and within the veil of the temple, under which the sovereign nature of God is hidden. If there is anything beyond this, it is for the choir of angels. What is beyond, let the Trinity have knowledge” (10).
The fact that God has revealed His consubstantial nature through history, Scriptures, and the Son means we must praise and honor Him in Trinity. Gregory argues that this progressive revelation of the Divine nature was because “You would do better to introduce gradually the glowing beams of fire, in case you should damage in any way the body’s sources of sweet light” (11). Or simply put, the Trinity was revealed progressively because without the unfolding of the history of redemption culminating in the revelation of the Son the doctrine would have been totally foreign. For Gregory, if someone claimed to understand the doctrine of the Trinity without worship, they never really knew the doctrine of the Trinity. Knowing God results in worshipping God. And one cannot worship the One True God if they ignore the Holy Spirit.
1 – Ad Serapion 1.1 (From the translation with introduction and notes by C.R.B. Shapland, originally published Epworth Press, 1951.)
2 – Pelikan, J. J. (2007). The emergence of the Catholic tradition: (100-600). Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press. Pg. 212
3 – Gregory Nazianzen Or.31.5.
4 – Poemata Arcana, 11.
5 – There is also a glimpse regarding Gregorie’s view on His economic activity brings people to salvation in Christ and progressively restores the image of God in them. Gregory’s doctrine of the Image of God is fascinating and hugely influential in the EOC. Yet, it is outside of the scope of this theological poem and my article. Gabrielle Thomas’ work The Image of God in the Theology of Gregory of Nazianzus, is a great resource to seeing how Gregory understood the Imago Dei.
6 – Poemata Arcana, 11.
7 – Ibid. 15
8 -To see why this was the case, check out Gregory’s Epistle 58, and Basil’s Epistles 113 and 114.
9 – For a helpful, and brief, overview of this position, see J.N.D Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines pg 258-263.
10 – Poemata Arcana, 15.
11 – Ibid. 11.