The following is a chapter from my dissertation, Person and Nature in the Theological Poems of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1995). The translations from the dissertation were later published in book form by St. Vladimir’s Press in the volume, On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (Crestwood, NY, 2001).

Trinitarian theology in the Poemata Arcana of St. Gregory the Theologian

God is a Trinity. That is the special theme of Gregory’s first three dogmatic poems, the poems On the Father, On the Son, and On the Holy Spirit. In speaking about God, it is not enough to talk about God’s nature or Godhead, but we must also speak of those who share this nature. It is not enough to state what God is (even if this were possible), but we must also state who God is. These pronouns have a distinct meaning, and one thing that the Cappadocian theology seeks to clarify is the distinction between them. The difference is a vital one for Christian thought and experience. God is not merely an anonymous “something,” like the “Unknown God” worshipped by the Athenians of St. Paul’s day (Acts 17:23). It is in revealing who He is that God reveals that He is. Without using the terms πρόσωπον or ὑπόστασις to speak of this, St. Gregory’s Poemata Arcana say a great deal, both about who God is, and about how he reveals this. It will repay our looking more closely at these poems, to see how he speaks of these things.

We may begin with the Father, since Gregory does. God has revealed himself to us first of all, Gregory says, as Father. The Old Testament showed forth the Father clearly, while only hinting at the Son (poem 1.1.3,24-26). (Even pagans, Gregory knows, recognize God as, in some sense, father; Homer, for instance, frequently speaks of Zeus as “father of gods and men.” At the same time, this usage points to some of the real differences between a Christian and a pagan view: we do not find pagans addressing God as “Our Father.”) What does it mean to speak of God as “Father”? One thing that this seems to imply for St. Gregory is that God is both the cause of our being and someone who exercises a continual care over us. We see this, for instance, in some of Gregory’s analogies: in poem 1.1.9, Gregory compares God to a loving father who teaches his child to walk. And, in poem 1.1.2,28, where Gregory says of the Father that, “to be God, to be begetter, he must be the great begetter,” Gregory indicates that God’s fatherhood implies also that he is the ultimate source: there is, as he says, nothing that precedes him (poem 1.1.2,5). Perhaps the clearest idea that is implied when we speak of God as “Father” is that he is our Creator. Just as we owe our being to our human fathers and mothers, so also, but in a more ultimate way, we owe our being to God. Indeed, the Bible says that it is from God’s fatherhood that human fatherhood gets its name (Eph. 3:15), not the other way around. To be a human father is, in some small way, to reflect that causal activity of God, who brings us into being and preserves us.

In reading St. Gregory’s Poemata Arcana, one may be struck by a curious fact. The first three poems of the series are titled On the Father, On the Son, and On the Holy Spirit. For the second and third poems, these titles clearly fit the subject matter: the second poem hymns the Son (poem 1.1.2,1), the third poem sings the glory of the Holy Spirit (poem 1.1.3,1). That the first poem is about the Father, on the other hand, is not so clear at all. Instead, the poem seems to stand as a kind of introduction to theology in general. It first gives the author’s apology for engaging in the impossible task of speaking about God who surpasses understanding, along with a warning to the prospective reader that enquiring into God is dangerous (vv. 1-24); then, in the latter part of the poem, it gives a succinct confession of the three persons of the Trinity (vv. 25-39). Unlike the two following poems, Gregory does not announce here that he will “sing the Father.” In fact, the same thing holds true for Gregory’s Theological Orations: there is no oration specifically about the Father. Why is this?

On the one hand, one may suppose that it is simply because no one was questioning the Father’s being God in Gregory’s day, whereas people were questioning the deity of the Son and the Holy Spirit; that Gregory felt no need to devote a poem or oration to defending the Father’s deity, when it was something generally acknowledged. That explanation, however, is insufficient: Gregory gives, in these poems, as systematic a presentation of his trinitarian thought as is found in any of his writings; he has not organized his material from polemical considerations alone. In fact, it seems in some ways especially appropriate that, in a poem titled “On the Father,” one should find a treatment of God as such. For Gregory teaches that the Father is the ἀρχή, the source, of the whole Trinity, and the whole of God is, as it were, recapitulated in him. Because there is one, personal source in God, God’s unity is not only a natural unity, but also a unity of a personal kind, a unity which Gregory refers to by the term, “the Monarchy.” Because the Father is the one source in God, and all that is in God is from him and refers back to him, there is no discord in the Trinity, and the three persons are not “three Gods.”

Nevertheless, it should be noted that this view of the position of the Father in the Trinity has occasioned much controversy. A number of scholars have asserted, either that Gregory’s understanding of the Father is illogical, or that he speaks inconsistently, sometimes predicating “first cause” of the Father, sometimes applying it, instead, to the Godhead. This inconsistency, according to Frederick Norris, is “perhaps the most glaring error in Gregory’s understanding of God;” “philosophical and systematic interests might have been better served had Nazianzen restricted causality to the one Godhead, not the Father, a name that designates one of the three persons” (Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning, pp. 45f.). In part, I think that the question has been obscured by what may be a mistranslation; I would question Wickham and Williams’s rendering of καὶ πρὸς ἓν τὰ ἐξ αὐτοῦ τὴν ἀναφορὰν ἔχει, κἂν τρία πιστεύηται in or. 31.14 as “Though there are three objects of belief, they derive from the single whole and have reference to it” (Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning, p. 286): there is no word “whole” in the original, and the Greek is, at very least, ambiguous as to what the word ἓν refers to. As for what Gregory says later down in that paragraph, where he seems, to some, to be identifying the Godhead with the first cause, I think that that passage, far from contradicting what Gregory says elsewhere, is fully in line with his usual teaching about two ways of understanding the divine unity. About that, more will be said shortly.

Already in Gregory’s trinitarian confession in vv. 25-39 of poem 1.1.1, important questions arise about how unity and distinction in the Trinity are to be understood. The confession begins with the Father. Or does it? Gregory says,

“There is one God, without beginnning or cause, not limited
by anything existing before, or afterwards to be,
encompassing the aeons, and infinite; the noble,
great, only-begotten Son’s great Father, who had, in the
Son, no suffering of anything fleshly, since he is mind.”
poem 1.1.1,25-29 (PG 37.400).

It is not until the fourth line of this passage that the name “Father” occurs, not before mention has been made of the Son. (In the Greek, this delay is even more conspicuous: the Son is mentioned in the third line, the Father not till the fourth.) Indeed, until the Son is named in the third line, the description here given of God would seem just as applicable to any one of the persons as to the Father in particular; or, to put it differently, the description could stand as a description of the divine nature, of “what” God is. God is one; God is without origin or beginning; God is uncaused; God is infinite with respect to both space and time. All this applies, not only to the Father, but to any one of the persons of the Trinity. Thus, is it the Father that is being spoken about here at the beginning, or God’s nature, his “whatness”?

Before the sentence is over, this deity, which hitherto had been described in abstract terms, is identified as the Father of the only-begotten Son. That is to say, Gregory describes the Father first in terms of his θεότης, his Godhead, and then in terms of his ἰδιώτης, of that which particularizes him. Viewed in himself, he is God; but the fact that he is Father appears only in his relation to another, to the Son. In fact, as Gregory points out in or. 29.16, this name “Father” indicates neither a substance nor an accident, but a relation. “Father” is always a Father to somebody. One sees this in human things: it is not the case that someone is first a father, and then, only afterwards and as it were accidentally, becomes possessed of a daughter or a son; but the terms, or rather the states of being, are entirely correlative: one’s state of being a father comes into being at the same moment as one’s child does. The same thing holds true in the case of the Holy Trinity, Gregory says, except that, there, there is no time when the Father was without the Son. There was no point when the Father was “not yet” Father: the Son is as eternal as the Father is (cf. especially or. 31.4 and or. 29.3). There is no temporal before and after in God; nevertheless the Son is “from” the Father (much as, Gregory says, light is from the sun, yet not temporally posterior to it, poem 1.1.2,21-22). The Son has the Father as his cause; in all other respects, however, he is just what the Father is, viz., God. As Gregory says in the first poem of the Arcana, “One other is God, not other in Godhead, God’s Word.” The Word has the same “whatness” as the Father has, but is other. How then is he other, if he is what the Father is? He is other, the poem says, as

“…his living paternal seal, the sole
Son of him who has no origin, and most Unique from the Unique, equal
in might, so that, while the one remains the whole parent, the Son
is worldmaker, lawgiver, the Father’s strength and intellect.”
poem 1.1.1,31-34 (PG 37.400-401)

He is, as Gregory notes elsewhere, ἄλλος, but not ἄλλον (epist. 101, PG 37.180). He is another person, but not another thing. If one were to look at the Son as he is in himself, one would see just what one sees if one looks at the Father as he is in himself: that is, “One God…” (poem 1.1.1,25; cf. poem 1.1.3,75). For this reason, the Son is called the Father’s “living paternal seal” (poem 1.1.1,31), his “Image” (poem 1.1.2,8): because, looking at him, one sees what the Father is (John 14:9). Yet, in the same way that the Father’s being Father appears only in his relation to someone else, viz., to the Son, so the Son’s being Son appears only in his relation to the Father. Just as “Father” implies a relation, so also “Son” does. “For as with us these names make known a genuine and intimate relation, so, in the case before us too, they denote an identity of nature between Him That is begotten and Him That begets” (or. 29.16).

That Gregory is one of the more important writers mediating a teaching about “relation” in God to Augustine and the West has long been recognized (see especially I. Chevalier, Saint Augustin et la Pensée Grecque: Les Relations Trinitaires (Fribourg-en-Suisse, 1940), pp. 141-152). But what is often forgotten is that Gregory’s thought about relation in God has a kind of double aspect. There is, as it were, a kind of inner side and an outer side to the persons, or, better, an interpersonal and an intra-personal way of looking at them. And these two ways of looking at the persons are fundamental for understanding St. Gregory’s distinction between person and nature. Who Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are is to be seen only in their relations to each other. But what Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are is the same in each one of them. In relation to each other, they differ; in relation to themselves, they are the same. As Gregory says, or. 40.41 (PG 36.417B), “each God when considered in himself; as the Father so the Son, as the Son so the Holy Ghost; the three one God when contemplated together; each God because consubstantial; one God because of the Monarchia.”

Now, in speaking above of the persons “in relation to themselves,” I was not quoting Gregory’s exact words; it is an expression that, so far as I know, he does not use (although he frequently uses the expression καθ᾽ ἑαυτό, “in” or “by” themselves). The source of this paraphrase is, instead, St. Augustine of Hippo. In his De Trinitate, V.6.7, in a passage clearly dependent upon St. Gregory’s or. 29 for refuting the arguments of the Eunomians, St. Augustine asserts that “whatever is said in relation to oneself is said according to substance” (NPNF i.3, pp. 89f.; “Quidquid autem ad se dicitur secundum substantiam dicitur,” Corpus Christianorum, ser. lat., tom. 50, p. 212). Again, “Wherefore let us hold this above all, that whatsoever is said of that most eminent and divine loftiness in respect to itself (ad se), is said in respect to substance, but that which is said in relation to anything (ad aliquid), is not said in respect to substance, but relatively; and that the effect of the same substance in Father, Son and Holy Spirit is, that whatsoever is said of each in respect to themselves (ad se), is to be taken of them, not in the plural in sum, but in the singular” (De Trin. V.8.9; NPNF i.3, p. 91). In other words, when the persons are seen in relation to themselves, what appears in each case is the same οὐσία or Godhead. In stating this principle, St. Augustine shows himself an insightful reader of St. Gregory the Theologian; indeed, he sees something that many of the latter’s modern interpreters have missed. It is the same dual perspective that we find expressed repeatedly in Gregory’s orations, as also in poem 1.1.3,74-76: if one is going to speak clearly of the divine unity, one has to recognize that there are two aspects from which the persons are to be viewed, both in themselves and in relation to one another; and, in accordance with this dual perspective, the divine unity itself tends to be seen, by Gregory, in two different ways.

As has already been said, Gregory is able to ascribe the divine unity both to the one nature, and to the one Father, and this has been taken by many writers as a contradiction. I do not think that it is a contradiction, or that Gregory’s use of the word “cause” is arbitrary. On the one hand, God is one, Gregory says, because each person possesses the identical Godhead. They share one same, divine being. On the other hand, God is one because this one divine being comes from a single source, the Father: because he is one, the being which is shared by the persons is also one. Because he gives them to be what he himself is, there is no severing of God into different levels of divinity; moreover, because everything God does originates in the Father, is actuated by the Son, and is perfected in the Holy Spirit, there is no opposition or strife between the persons, but a single divine activity. When Gregory speaks of that unity which the persons have as ὁμοούσιος, therefore, he means, in the first place, that oneness of what they are, the identity of the οὐσία that is contemplated in each of them, and in all three. But when Gregory speaks of the μοναρχία, he means, first of all, that unity that the persons have on account of who they are, the unity that they have with each other.

Let us examine some texts. One of the advantages of reading Gregory’s dogmatic poetry is that he spells out here these two ways of seeing the unity as clearly as anyplace else in his writings. Towards the end of poem 1.1.3, after Gregory has considered the persons one by one, and defended the teaching that each of them is God, that none of them “divide the Godhead” (poem 1.1.2,27; poem 1.1.3,48,58-59; cf. poem 1.1.2,31-34, 58, 81; poem 1.1.3,2, 9, 33, 40-43, 51-52), he returns to considering them all together. And there he distinguishes two ways in which we speak of the “one God” (vv. 71ff.). On the one hand, because the Godhead is the same in each of the three, each is God (v. 75). There is one light of Godhead, shining through each of the three (v. 43). On the other hand, “one God” sometimes refers to the Father in particular, in Scripture and in early ecclesiastical writers (v. 76; cf. vv. 55-56, ἐν θείοισι λόγοις καὶ θειοφόροισιν ἀνδράσιν). This usage exists, Gregory says, so that “we might extol the strong-shining Monarchy, and not content ourselves with a pluralist (lit., polyarchic) marketplace of gods.” That is, “it refers to the unoriginate root” (v. 58). Here, the word “Monarchy” plainly indicates that there is one ἀρχή, one personal source of the unity in God. If it were not so, Gregory says, if there were not this oneness of source or μοναρχία in God, then one would have instead a plurality of sources or πολυαρχία in God (vv. 80-81). This would be tantamount to having no source at all (ἀναρχία): each hypostasis would be unrelated to the others, divided from the others; the only possible relation, on these terms, would be one of strife, leading to dissolution (λύσις, v. 82) — something which is far from God. It is therefore the role of the Father, as the one source of “the wealth of Godhead” (v. 76), that establishes the unity of the three persons. (This argument about the need of a single source recurs in different contexts throughout the Arcana. The unity of composite natures — matter and form, human beings, stars and constellations, etc. — is not self-explanatory, Gregory repeatedly argues: things have to be traced to a single source, if their oneness is to be at all intelligible. See notes on poem 1.1.4,24-37; poem 1.1.5,27,33; also, a brief history of the theological use of the term μοναρχία in notes to poem 1.1.3,71-80.) In any case, what one sees here is not merely two senses of the expression “one God,” but two aspects of God’s unity. On the one hand, God is one because it is the same Godhead in each: i.e., because, viewed in themselves, each is identically God. And on the other hand, God is one because of the Father, who is the source of this identical being in the other persons.

Even if the expression “first cause” in or. 31.14 does refer to the Godhead, then, this would not contradict Gregory’s usual teaching. For God is one, Gregory indicates, just as much because of the one nature as because of the one Father. It all depends on how one views the persons: that is, in themselves, or in their relations to one another.

However, that “first cause” in or. 31.14 does refer to the Godhead, or refers to it in exclusion of the Father, is not at all clear to me. Again, I think there is a translation problem here.

The Greek text runs thus (PG 36.149A): Ὅταν μὲν οὖν πρὸς τὴν θεότητα βλέπωμεν, καὶ τὴν πρώτην αἰτίαν, καὶ τὴν μοναρχίαν, ἓν ἡμῖν τὸ φανταζόμενον· ὅταν δὲ πρὸς τὰ ἐν οἷς ἡ θεότης, καὶ τὰ ἐκ τῆς πρώτης αἰτίας ἀχρόνως ἐκεῖθεν ὄντα καὶ ὁμοδόξως, τρία τὰ προσκυνούμενα. Then here is Wickham and Williams’ translation (op. cit., p. 286): “When we look at the Godhead, the primal cause, the sole sovereignty, we have a mental picture of the single whole, certainly. But when we look at the three in whom the Godhead exists, who derive their timeless and equally glorious being from the primal cause, we have three objects of worship.”

As translated, the first clause (“When we look at the Godhead, the primal cause, the sole soveriegnty …”) gives the impression that θεότητα, πρώτην αἰτίαν, and μοναρχίαν all refer to the same thing. The Greek, however, places the word καί, “and,” between these three terms, and it is unclear whether Gregory means to imply that the terms are synonymous. (To my ear, it sounds more as though Gregory is naming three distinct objects.) Again, as earlier in the paragraph, the word ἕν has been translated as “the single whole.” Quite literally, it simply means “one thing.” Thus, Browne and Swallow, in the old Nicene, Post-Nicene Fathers translation, render the first line thus: “When we look at the Godhead, or the First Cause, or the Monarchia, that which we conceive is One” (NPNF ii.7, p. 322). In other words, whether we think of Godhead, or of Primal Cause, or of the Monarchy, that which comes into our mind is one thing, i.e., one God. To say this, however, is not to say that “Godhead,” “Primal Cause,” and “Monarchy” all carry exactly the same sense. Rather, these terms indicate different ways of looking at, envisaging, God’s oneness. God is one, whether one sees this divine unity from the standpoint of the one Godhead, which all three persons share, or from the standpoint of the one source of Godhead, which one of the persons is in relation to the others.

Thus, in the second sentence, Gregory speaks first of τὰ ἐν οἷς ἡ θεότης, “those in whom the Godhead is,” then, secondly, τὰ ἐκ τῆς πρώτης αἰτίας ἀχρόνως ἐκεῖθεν ὄντα καὶ ὁμοδόξως, “those who timelessly and with equal glory have their being from the First Cause.” The first clause refers, as poem 1.1.3,75 does, to all three persons being equally God; the second clause refers, like poem 1.1.3,76ff., to the Son and Holy Spirit being God from God, that is, from the Father. The newer translation, by again dropping the word “and,” confounds the two perspectives, as though Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all had their being from the Godhead, which is something that Gregory never says. The Godhead is not the ἀρχή of the Father. Μήτε ὑπὸ ἀρχὴν ποιεῖν τὸν Πατέρα, ἵνα μὴ τοῦ πρώτου τι πρῶτον εἰσαγάγωμεν, “Do not place the Father under an ἀρχή (origin), lest we should introduce a beginning for the beginning” (or. 25.15, PG 35.1220C).

I should not belabor this point, were it not that this passage has been the focus of much controversy, and the controversy has wider implications. How one understands God’s unity is one of the theological points dividing East and West. In my view, Gregory wishes to emphasize both unity from the Father and unity in the nature, but he sees these as answers to different questions. The one has to do with who God is, that is, with how the persons are revealed in their relations to one another; the other has to do with what God is, that is, with how God is understood when taken in himself.

It must be remembered, moreover, that Gregory does not think that we are able to say what God is. We know that he is, but we cannot say what God is (or. 28.5; cf. Basil, epist. 234.2). We cannot define “God-in-himself.” (Certainly the term ἀγέννητος fails, in the Cappadocians’ view, as a definition of God’s being.) Knowledge of God in Christ is not, primarily, knowledge of a metaphysical kind, but knowledge of a personal kind. It is knowing the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit: being able, through the gift of the Spirit, to call upon God as our Father. Thus, one should note the importance, in Gregory’s poems, of the first personal pronoun. “One is the might of my Trinity,” Gregory says (poem 1.1.3,87); the Spirit is God “to me” (poem 1.1.3,3); John the Baptist heralded “Christ my God” in the midst of the wilderness (poem 1.1.9,74,80). Why this emphasis on the word “my” in Gregory’s poems? Because this word tells us something about how God is known. Christ’s blood, Gregory says, is “our passions’ cleansing” (poem 1.1.2,2), and, in arguing with Arians about the divinity of Christ, he argues on the basis of our common passions: “Has he sinned, in pitying you? To me, rather, he’s the more amazing. For he didn’t shave off any bit of Godhead, and still he saved me, stooping as a doctor over my foul-smelling passions” (poem 1.1.2,59-61). Likewise, in arguing for the divinity of the Holy Spirit, Gregory again appeals to his own experience (poem 1.1.3,46-53): if the Holy Spirit has joined me to God, cleansed me entirely, God forbid that I should separate him from the one Godhead. Knowledge of God is here represented as a matter of being joined to God, of communion with him (cf. John 17:27). It is not a matter of being able to define him.

But, again, someone might point to the difficult statement in Gregory’s poem On the Holy Spirit, v. 60: “From unity is the Trinity, and from Trinity again the unity.” What can this mean, if not that the three persons come from the one nature?

The illustrations that Gregory subsequently gives (source, spring, river; a flame divided and returning to one; a word both going forth from the mind and remaining in it, and so on, poem 1.1.3,61-70) do not, on the whole, support the notion that the unity whence the Trinity arises is other than one of the three. And even though Gregory in fact rejects these images, he does so because they inadequately represent the unchanging character of the Trinity (cf. vv. 68f.), not because they do not show the persons deriving from the nature. The point is, that, when Gregory says, “From unity is the Trinity,” he is speaking, in paradoxical language, about a kind of eternal movement of God, having its beginning in that unity which the Father is. “Therefore Unity having from all eternity arrived by motion at Duality, found its rest in Trinity. This is what we mean by Father and Son and Holy Ghost” (or. 29.2, PG 36.76B; tr. NPNF ii.7, p. 301). Thus, Gregory balances his teaching concerning the identical content of the three persons — the one Godhead — with his teaching on the Monarchy of the Father. By this teaching on the Monarchy Gregory prevents his theology from descending into a form of modalism, i.e, from a reduction of the persons to an undifferentiated Godhead. Distinction and unity are equally important, in Gregory’s view of the Trinity. The Trinity is “dividedly united, and unitedly divided” (or.23.8). Pious doctrine, Gregory says, must teach “how the unity is made three, and the trinity made one” (poem 2.1.11,657-659, col.1074).

If the above explanations seem inadequate for accounting for Gregory’s tendency sometimes to speak as though the Godhead were a source of the persons, I will offer one final one. Just as, in vv. 25ff. of the poem On the Father, Gregory speaks of the Father, first of all, in terms of his nature, and only calls him “Father” after mentioning the Son, so, when Gregory views the Father as the beginning of the whole Trinity, and takes him, as it were, prior to his relations to the other persons (an abstraction that Gregory insists is impossible in reality, and only corresponds to the limitations of our thinking), then, because it is only through his relations to the others that the Father is spoken of as Father, it may be that Gregory views the Father as indistinguishable from the Godhead as such. This is not to say that Gregory sees no distinction between the Father and the Godhead. But it is only through the existence of the Son and the Holy Spirit that such a distinction comes about. The Father is Father because he begets the Son. “Father” indicates origin, relation to another; it does not, as such, indicate Godhead (as against what the Eunomians taught). So, it may be that, when Gregory speaks of the Father, as it were prior to his being Father, he refers to him simply as Godhead. Note that this does not mean that the Godhead is the source of the Father (a ridiculous notion). It simply means that, if one looks at the Father in relation to himself, in abstraction from the other persons, one sees the one Godhead, and nothing else: just as the same thing applies to the Son and the Holy Spirit.

A few more comments, and I will end my introductory treatment of Gregory’s trinitarian theology: most of the detailed argumentation will be found in the notes to the poems. We need to say something here about the Holy Spirit, and how St. Gregory’s poems speak of that relation which the Spirit has to the other persons, before moving on to speak of Gregory’s christology.

As in the case of the Father and the Son, Gregory confesses that the Holy Spirit is God (poem 1.1.3,3-4). He is “God from God who is good” (poem 1.1.1,35). The Holy Spirit is, however, God from God in a different way than the Son is. Like the Son, the Holy Spirit, Gregory says, is from the Father (poem 1.1.3,7). But he is from the Father, not by generation, but by procession, according to John 15:26, “the Spirit of truth, who proceedeth from the Father.” To those who asked him wherein procession differs from generation, Gregory responded that we should not enquire into things which Holy Scripture does not reveal to us; it is enough to know that Scripture asserts this distinction, even though we cannot define it more particularly (cf. or. 31.8-9; or. 20.11; or. 25.16). But, to show that such a distinction is possible, Gregory gives a human analogy (poem 1.1.3,37-39; or. 31.11). Not every human being who is from another human being is so by way of generation. Take, for instance, Eve. Both Eve and Seth are from Adam, but, of the two, only Seth is from Adam by way of generation; Eve is formed by God from Adam’s rib. Nevertheless, all three, Adam, Eve, and Seth, share a single human nature. So also, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share a single divine nature, even though they exist in three different ways.

One should note that the point of this illustration is a limited one. It is not given, at least, not directly, as an answer to the question “Why are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit not three Gods, if they share one nature?” That is, it should not be confused with the three men example that Gregory of Nyssa sometimes uses. Nor is this illustration given in order to explain what begetting and procession are. It is merely intended to show that the distinction between these two ways of “being-from,” these two ways of sharing a nature, is logically possible. In fact, when, in one place (or. 31.8), Gregory describes the Spirit as a “mean between the Unbegotten and the Begotten,” he is evidently speaking of “mean,” not in a quantitative or local sense, but in a logical sense. It is not the case that, if x is God, then x must be either begotten or unbegotten. There is a mean term between these two apparent contradictories: there is one who is God, yet who is neither unbegotten nor begotten, but proceeding.

In presenting these arguments, Gregory’s main concern is to refute the dilemma, presented by the Pneumatomachians, that, if the Holy Spirit is God, then, if he is from the Father, he should be considered another Son; if he is from the Son, he should be considered the Father’s Grandson (or. 31.7). Against this, Gregory seeks to dissociate the Spirit’s mode of being — procession — from the notion of begetting entirely. It has been noted by some students of the history of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit’s procession, that Gregory is less inclined to speak explicitly of the Holy Spirit being through the Son than are Basil or Gregory of Nyssa. Certainly this expression is very difficult to come by in his poetry. Why does Gregory avoid this language? His main reason appears to be that he connects the role of “cause” in God to the Father alone (cf. or. 34.10). Just as the Holy Spirit is not another Son, so Gregory wants to guard against the view that the Son is another Father; cf. poem 1.2.1,20-29:

“The original Virgin is the Holy Trinity. From the beginningless
Father is the Lord the Son — not that the Father is moved by anything outside him
(for he is to all things the Way and Root and Beginning),
nor that he begets a child in a way akin to mortals,
but as light comes forth from light. But from the Child
there is no other well-loved Child, claiming a similar boast:
so that the one remains the sole Parent, while the other is
sole Son and most Unique from the Unique; these come together in one
with the great Spirit, who likewise comes from the Father,
one God opening up in threefold lights.”

There is strong evidence that Gregory thought that the relation of the Holy Spirit to the Son was not something that human beings could logically define, that it is one of those things which we shall understand, not in this life, but in the world to come (cf. or. 25.16, PG 35.1221C). On the other hand, as has already been mentioned, Gregory sometimes speaks of the three persons existing as a kind of single, eternal movement of the Godhead: beginning in the Father, moving through the Son, coming to rest in the Holy Spirit (see or. 29.2; or. 23.8). In other words, Gregory is far from seeing the Godhead as merely a kind of abstraction, a “generic essence.” It is the one, concrete being of the three. As Gregory says at or. 39.11, “For the Godhead is one in three, and the three are one, in whom the Godhead is, or to speak more accurately, who are the Godhead” (PG 36.344D; NPNF ii.7, pp. 355f.).

2 Responses to “Trinitarian theology in St. Gregory’s poems”

  1. Neil E. Dainio Says:

    May name is Neil Dainio.
    And I am A Grad. student at Briercrest Seminary.
    Currently I am working on my Final Major Research/Reading Paper.
    My topic is the Monarchy of God the Father within the writings of Gregory of Nazianzus.
    I found myself at a stand still a week ago, realizing that my research and paper was not going into the direction I had envisioned.
    This morning I sat down back on my desk and thought I would look around the web, to see if there was any one else that was working on the same material or topic.
    Your post gave me some new insight and direction.
    Thank you.

    Neil E. Dainio

    Have you rad Christopher A. Beeley’s book: Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Trinity and the Knowlege of God?
    It is a very interesting new take on Gregory.

  2. bekkos Says:

    Dear Neil,

    Thanks for your note. I did not, in fact, know about Christopher Beeley’s book; it sounds like something I will definitely want to find and read. It just happens that today, as you sent me this message, I was translating something from French from an author (Jean-Miguel Garrigues) who has written a lot about the Filioque issue; in the passage I translated, he deals directly with the question of St. Gregory’s understanding of the Father’s Monarchy. So I posted it to the blog a few minutes ago, thinking you might find it useful.

    Best of luck with your research.


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