St. Gregory on schism

January 25, 2008

St. Gregory of Nazianzus, poem 2.1.13, To the Bishops, vv. 151-163; PG 37, 1239-1240. Written about the year 382 AD.

Others, mutually divided, drive East and West
into confusion, and God has abandoned them to their flesh,
for which they make war, giving their name and their allegiance to others:
my god’s Paul, yours is Peter, his is Apollos.
But Christ is pierced with nails to no purpose.
For it’s not from Christ that we’re called, but from men,
we who possess his honor by hands and by blood.
So much have our eyes been clouded over by a love
of vain glory, or gain, or by bitter envy,
pining away, rejoicing in evil: these have a well-earned misery.
And the pretext is the Trinity, but the reality is faithless hate.
Each is two-faced, a wolf concealed against the sheep,
and a brass pot hiding a nasty food for the children.


St. Gregory the Theologian wrote the poem To the Bishops in the aftermath of the second ecumenical council, after he had left Constantinople in the middle of the council and returned to his native Cappadocia. The passage cited above reflects the bitterness he felt over the circumstances of his departure; after taking over the presidency of the council following the death of Meletius of Antioch, Gregory had tried to resolve the schism that existed at Antioch between the followers of Meletius and the followers of Paulinus, both of whom claimed to be bishop of the city. Meletius’s claims had been supported by most of the Eastern episcopacy; Paulinus’s claims had been supported by the Latin-speaking West and by Egypt. Gregory’s attempt to mediate the disagreement only brought him the disdain of both sides; the Eastern bishops rejected Gregory’s proposed solution to the schism, which was that Meletius’s followers should now recognize Paulinus as bishop; the Western bishops, when they arrived at the council, rejected Gregory’s appointment as archbishop of Constantinople on the technical point that he had already been appointed bishop of Sasima in Cappadocia (a see he had never occupied) and that his transfer to the see of Constantinople contravened a canon of the Council of Nicaea. Although Gregory pointed out that this canon had fallen completely out of observance, for the sake of maintaining peace between the churches he complied with the Westerners’ demands and resigned as archbishop of Constantinople.

Besides revealing Gregory’s bitter state of mind, the passage also reveals that Gregory understood the schism between the two groups to be based upon pretended theological grounds. “The pretext,” Gregory says, “is the Trinity, the reality is faithless hate.” What does he mean by this?

Besides the question of personalities, the Meletian and Paulinian factions were divided also over theological terminology. The Meletians, like most Christians in the East, spoke of God as three hypostases, one ousia, a usage that apparently goes back to the third-century theologian, Origen. The Paulinians spoke of God as one hypostasis or ousia, three prosopa (“persons”). The Paulinians’ linguistic usage was arguably closer to that of the Council of Nicaea of 325, which had taught that the Son is ἐκ τῆς οὐσίας τοῦ Πατρός (“from the Father’s ousia) and had anathematized anyone who spoke of the Son as being “from another hypostasis or ousia” — other, that is, than the Father. This was also closer to the usage of the Latin-speaking West: the Greek word hypostasis is cognate with the Latin substantia. The Latins always felt the doctrine of three hypostases was implicitly tritheistic; the Greeks, similarly, suspected that the Western doctrine of three prosopa or personae was a mere cover for modalism, i.e., the idea that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are merely masks, temporary identities that the Godhead takes on for awhile and then lays aside.

St. Gregory, following St. Athanasius, regarded both of these terminologies as legitimate. He himself kept to the Eastern usage, but he accepted those who adopted the Western terminology, as though, when they spoke of one hypostasis, three prosopa, they meant the same thing he did when speaking of one ousia, three hypostases.

It is possible that, in assuming this identity of meaning on both sides, Gregory was being overly optimistic. My guess is that the differences actually went somewhat deeper than mere terminology, and that there were real differences in ontological understanding between the two groups. It further seems to me that these implicit ontological differences, i.e., different understandings of divine substance, soon returned to haunt Christianity in the interminable debate over the procession of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father” (John 15:26). Yes, but (theologians of the Western school quickly pointed out) he also has a certain relation of receptivity towards the Son. Jesus says that the Holy Spirit “will receive of mine” (John 16:14), and “All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you” (John 16:15). Photius, in the ninth century, maintained that, when Jesus says “he shall receive of mine,” he means that the Holy Spirit shall receive from him that is mine, i.e., he shall receive from the Father. But it is quite clear that that is not how the line was interpreted by writers of the fourth century like Epiphanius, Apollinarius, Didymus the Blind, and St. Athanasius himself. They took Jesus’ words as meaning that the Holy Spirit receives from that which the Son himself possesses, which he possesses from the Father. In other words, they interpreted Jesus’ words in the passage to mean that the Holy Spirit receives from the Son the divine ousia, his actual being. This was the tradition St. Augustine received, and which he embodied in his trinitarian writings.

The logic of the Western position seems to have gone something like this. Just as the Son is ἐκ τῆς οὐσίας τοῦ Πατρός, from the substance of the Father, so it is legitimate to say that the Holy Spirit is ἐκ τῆς οὐσίας τοῦ Πατρός καὶ τοῦ Υἱοῦ, from the substance of the Father and the Son.

How do the Cappadocians interpret John 16:14f.? Very curiously, they don’t. One looks in vain for the Cappadocians giving a theological interpretation to those verses; at least, to date, I have not found them doing so. This is very odd; especially since Origen, whom they frequently follow, himself had read this passage as implying a dependence of the Spirit upon the Son. This suggests to me that they were consciously avoiding something.

Actually, there is one place where one does find the Cappadocians quoting John 16:14f. But it occurs in a text whose authenticity is highly disputed. The text is St. Basil, Adv. Eunomium III.1. In one version of this text, Basil argues against Eunomius that, even though Christian tradition speaks of the Holy Spirit as coming third “in dignity and order,” this ordinal thirdness does not imply that the Spirit is “third in nature.” In speaking in this passage of the Spirit as coming after the Son in an ordinal way, the author gives reasons: it because “he has being from him, and receives from him and announces to us, and depends entirely upon this cause.” The authenticity of the passage was defended by Bekkos in the thirteenth century and Bessarion in the fifteenth; they pointed out that the manuscripts that contained this reading were among the oldest manuscripts of the text, and evidently predated the outbreak of hostilities at the time of Photius. The current scholarly consensus is that it is a forgery, perhaps dating to the seventh century. But scholarly consensuses are sometimes wrong, and, in this case, the arguments for dating it to the seventh century are not, I think, watertight.

I think it is possible that the text is, in fact, by St. Basil, from an early, more Origenistic stage of his career, and that, for one reason or another, he later became more reserved about asserting a direct causal dependence of the Holy Spirit upon the Son. My guess is that the reason for this could have been the change in his relationship with Eustathius of Sebaste, and a desire to distance himself from him. (Eustathius, around the year 370, began asserting that trinitarian order implied that the Spirit did not share the same, divine nature as the Father and the Son; Basil might well have begun to see any explicit acknowledgment of trinitarian order as potentially dangerous.) The passage could have been edited out by Basil himself, or it could have been done by his brother Gregory of Nyssa or his friend Gregory of Nazianzus. One of the editors of the Adv. Eunomium for Sources Chrétiennes suggests just a scenario as a possible explanation for the textual tradition; it is not a mere wild idea.

In any case, St. Gregory’s passage, quoted above, is worth reflecting on. Although he is not talking about the Filioque, he is talking, I think, about a situation that gave birth to the Filioque debate. Bekkos, in the thirteenth century, notes that there is a sort of historical, genetic relationship between this fourth-century schism and the schism in his own time: “Most remarkably, these peoples and Churches are none other than the ones we are dealing with in the present discourse” (De unione, §11). And, while Bekkos never cites this passage from a poem of St. Gregory’s, I am certain that, had he known of it, he would have seen it as confirming his own approach. Just as St. Gregory regarded the schism in his day as an empty logomachy fueled by national pride and ecclesiastical ambition, so Bekkos thought that Photius had raised the Filioque issue for precisely these reasons. He would have seen Gregory condemning the schism beforehand.

I do not know that Bekkos’s analysis of the theological issues is entirely correct. He seems to presume that there was a consensus about the Holy Spirit’s procession, a consensus that “through” implied “from,” which I doubt ever existed, or at least, was ever really general. The issue was raised in the debates between St. Cyril and Theodoret in the fifth century; arguably, it was not resolved then, and has not been resolved still. I doubt very much that Bekkos’s theological solution to the problem will ever serve as a generally acceptable formula for understanding the Holy Spirit’s procession. He is an Old Nicene, born out of time. The people of his day had no idea of what he was talking about.

Still, I think St. Gregory’s poem shows that Bekkos is not a shallow reader of the fathers, as some people claim him to be. He never read this poem, but the spirit that speaks through it is very much his. He saw through that piety that expresses itself in theological contempt for one’s brother; like Gregory, he recognized this form of speculative brilliance as hatred. There was a part of the fathers’ message that was not being heard, and perhaps is still not sufficiently being heard; Bekkos proclaimed it, loudly, and suffered for it. I believe he deserves some credit.

4 Responses to “St. Gregory on schism”

  1. Rusty Says:

    Thank you so much for this blog. I learn something every time you post.

  2. Chalcedon ended the confusion of terminology problems when it said that hypostasis = prosopon. It doesn’t really matter what one uses as long as what is said about what is particular is said only of that one, and what is said in common is said about all of them.

    If the text is authentic, and you are right it is doubtful, it’s easy to chalk it up to Basil’s own principle that what is personal is irreducibly unique and particular and what is said about more than one person is said about all the persons. Origen is a heretic and is the source of the Nicene crisis because he confuses personal properties with natural properties, and those that followed his Triadology said “every rash imprudence there is to say.” It’s no coincidence that you see dialectical and filioque theology in him.


  3. […] Lest we think disputes among Christians are a new thing, John Bekkos of De unione ecclesiarum writes about St. Gregory Nazianzus and the schisms of his day: “St. Gregory on schism.” […]

  4. […] they were fueled by what St. Gregory the Theologian bluntly called “faithless hate” (“To the Bishops”), our past demonstrates that we were often too eager to hand God’s temple over to destruction […]

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